In his chapter in TGC’s 2017 book Our Secular Age, Mike Cosper writes about how music and the arts in a secular age can “push us to the edge of the immanent frame.” Cosper cites Kanye West’s 2016 song “Ultralight Beam” as an example of contemporary popular culture that straddles transcendence and immanence, religious hope and despair.
Like the Bible’s psalms, the best songs are personal and prayerful, covering the full range of life, loss, and longing. As Christians, we should seek to understand and engage these musical probings of the immanent frame. We should take note of where and how music is grappling with God and transcendence, celebrating the way it can disrupt and unsettle our assumptions about life within the immanent frame.
What were the songs released in 2017 that fall in this category?
The following is my (surely inexhaustive) attempt to gather a list of some of the best, most spiritually charged songs of the year. Some are explicitly worshipful. Others are implicitly theological. Some are just beautiful in their grasping for goodness and grace. All represent bright spots in the musical landscape of 2017.
Here they are, in alphabetical order.
“Are We Not One,” Young Oceans The first single from Young Oceans’ recently released new album, this track (listen here) starts quietly and builds to a rousing chorus that celebrates the joy, hope, and peace that comes from union with Christ: “Have we not joy, in the midst of every shadow / Have we not hope, in the deepest of the dark / Have we not peace, that passes understanding.”
“At My Table,” J. J. Heller “This is for the powerless, the wounded and the weak / This is for the immigrant, and those who cannot speak.” That’s how Nashville singer/songwriter J. J. Heller begins this song (listen here)—a beautiful reminder of Christ’s hospitality in inviting every one of us, however broken or fearful, to fellowship with him.
“Atlas: One,” Sleeping at Last The first of a series of songs inspired by the nine Enneagram types, this track captures the “One” type beautifully and accurately (listen to this podcast episode about the making of the song). Hard-working, perfectionist Ones will resonate when Ryan O’Neal sings, “I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately / To find out that grace requires nothing of me.”
“Call on God,” Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings Originally recorded in 2007 but just released this year, this beautiful Gospel tune takes on special weight given Sharon Jones’s death last year from pancreatic cancer. The song (watch official video here) finds the iconic soul singer crying out, posthumously: “To be like him is what I long to be / And to share his love to eternity.”
“Evening Prayer,” Jens Lekman This strange song’s bouncy, disco-esque music (listen here) is a stark contrast to its weighty subject matter—about a friend of Lekman’s who’s had a tumor removed. In the midst of his friend’s pain, Lekman offers prayers: “How I pray that I could stop the pain / When the pain needed more than ibuprofen. / How I pray that I could take away your worries / When they ran deeper than the West Pacific Ocean.”
“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire The title track off Arcade Fire’s fifth album is a prophetic anthem for our over-mediated moment (watch the official video here). With access to everything all the time via smartphones and Google, we can relate to the feeling Win Butler describes when he sings, “Every inch of space in your head / Is filled up with the things that you read. And every film that you’ve ever seen / Fills the spaces up in your dreams.”
“Fairest Lord Jesus,” Sara Groves I usually don’t like when perfectly good melodies for old hymns are tampered with in new renditions, but Groves’s melodic variation on this 19th-century classic, from Abide With Me, is subtle and lovely (listen here). The music accentuates the elegance of the lyrics, which describe Jesus as fairer even than the fair meadows and woodlands “robed in the blooming garb of spring.”
“Father, Let Your Kingdom Come,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Urban Doxology, Liz Vice, and Latifah Alattas This joyful song (watch performance video here) is a standout from the debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project. The refrains are simple but powerful (“May the works of my hands bring You joy. . . . You make all things new”) and the chorus is pure praise: “Hallelu, hallelujah / Father, let Your kingdom come.”
“First Rain,” Teen Daze with S. Carey The couplet of ambient albums this year from Canada’s Teen Daze—Themes for Dying Earth and Themes for a New Earth—are both worth checking out. Any of their (mostly instrumental) songs could have made this list, but “First Rain” from Dying Earth is especially beautiful (watch video here).
“First World Problems,” Chance the Rapper and Daniel Caesar This subdued stunner from Chance the Rapper—debuted on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert in September (watch)—is thick with personal lament, confession, biblical allusions, and eschatological longing (“The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes. . .”).
“The Greatest Gift,” Sufjan Stevens The title track off Sufjan’s 2017 The Greatest Gift mixtape (watch official video here), this song explores the love commands of Jesus, which in Sufjan’s lyrical rendering call us “To love your friends and lovers / To lay down your life for your brothers / As you abide in peace / So will your delight increase.”
“Happy to Be Here,” Julien Baker In this song off Turn Out the Lights, Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker wonders whether the “engineer” can fix her “faulty circuitry.” She articulates a familiar obstacle to grace when she sings: “I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change / Grit my teeth and try to act deserving / When I know there is nowhere I can hide / From your humiliating grace.”
“If,” Beautiful Eulogy The highlights come early in Worthy with the stunning “If.” The song (listen here) is a Scripture-soaked gem that invokes Philippians 3:7–8 to articulate the all-in cost of following Christ, no matter the cost: “I will praise your name / In the giving and taking away / If I have you I could lose everything / And still consider it gain.”
“I’ll Find You,” Lecrae and Tori Kelley “I’m hanging on by a thread / And all I’m clinging to is prayers,” Lecrae begins in this powerful collaboration with Tori Kelly off 2017’s All Things Work Together. It’s a somber but ultimately hopeful song (watch video here) about being at the end of one’s rope and recognizing in those moments our need for help from beyond ourselves.
“I Promise,” Radiohead This previously unreleased track from the recording sessions of Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer is a surprisingly straightforward song about committed love in a fidgety age (watch the video here). “I won’t run away no more, I promise,” Thom Yorke repeats. “Even when I get bored, I promise.”
“It’s Not Working (The Truth),” Propaganda, with Courtney Orlando This track (listen here) from Crooked—Propaganda’s latest album from Humble Beast—finds the lyricist at the top of his game as he explores the need to ground our concern about systemic injustice in the reality of personal sin: “But fixing systemic issues, it ain’t the source of your rest. . . Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us / It’s not working, is it?”
“John, My Beloved (iPhone Demo),” Sufjan Stevens What was one of the most beautiful ballads off Sufjan’s 2015 album Carrie & Lowell becomes even more beautiful in this newly released “iPhone Demo” version (listen here). Gorgeously low-fi, Sufjan sounds frail as he cries out to Jesus in the midst of pain and death: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me / From fossils that fall on my head.”
“Last of My Kind,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit This track from The Nashville Sound follows a familiar trope—the country boy feeling alienated and homesick in the big city: “Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear / That might be true in Arkansas / But I’m a long, long way from there.” While home may not be Arkansas for everyone, the laments and longings the song expresses are universal (listen here).
“LOVE,” Kendrick Lamar featuring Zacari Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is full of dichotomies and dualities: wickedness and weakness, pride and humility, lust and love. Lamar explores these through companion tracks, like the hopeful and innocent “LOVE” (track 9) which follows—and provides something of a foil to—the dark and vice-ridden “LUST” (track 8).
“Mercury,” Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister This gorgeous standout from Planetarium—an album inspired by the planets in our solar system as well as Greco-Roman mythology—is lyrically cryptic but musically stunning (listen here). It’s Sufjan Stevens at his best: introspective and poetic, yet humble in the face of wonders beyond his orbit.
“Messiah,” Beautiful Eulogy, featuring Citizens & Saints The chorus of this Worthy standout (listen here) is perhaps the most concise articulation of the core problem of our Age of Authenticity: “I can’t always rely on my desires / But I treat them like the Messiah.” Odd Thomas expands on it with brilliant wordplay in his rapped verse: “When a good God gives good gifts we generally tend to twist the list / And take the list of good gifts that God tends to give and make general ‘gods’ out of gifts.”
“Night Has Passed / Morning Has Broken,” The Brilliance This hopeful song (listen here) from All Is Not Lost brilliantly combines an original praise chorus (“We rejoice / In the gift of this day”) with the melody and some lyrics from the Cat Stevens classic about the new morning mercies of songbirds: “Praise for the singing / Praise for the morning / Praise for them springing fresh from the world.”
“No Country,” John Mark McMillan One of the singles from McMillan’s 2017 album, Mercury & Lightning, “No Country” is an anthem for those (many) who feel increasingly alienated in today’s world. Evoking Matthew 8:20 and other biblical verses about feeling literally and symbolically homeless, McMillan sings: “Never saw it coming, never thought I’d wake up / With no place to call my country.”
“Pain,” The War On Drugs One of the standout tracks on the rightly acclaimed A Deeper Understanding, “Pain” evokes a soundscape of personal struggle (“I resist what I cannot change / And I wanna find what can’t be found”) and longing for relationships that bring clarity (“Pull me close and let me hold you in / Give me the deeper understanding of who I am.”)
“Pedantic,” Sho Baraka We need to be asking the questions this song asks (watch video here). From The Narrative, Volume 2, “Pedantic” explores the dangers of the speed and glut of information in today’s world, which often (wrongly) interprets slowness and silence as weakness or irrelevance. “I learn the value of silence when fools speak / In a culture of speed they will judge you when you’re slow.”
“Persevere,” Gang of Youths Dave Le’aupepe, lead singer of Australian band Gang of Youths, wrestles with the problem of pain in “Persevere,” a song about his Christian friends whose baby, Emme, died (listen here; warning: explicit). Le’aupepe examines his own faith (or lack thereof) by observing his friends’ confident hope in the midst of unspeakable tragedy: “Nothing tuned me in to my failure as fast / As grieving for a friend with more belief than I possessed.”
“Pianos in Jericho,” Sho Baraka and Sean C. Johnson The questions Sho Baraka asks in “Pianos in Jericho” (listen here) are timely and convicting: “Is God a magician to fulfill my mission? . . . Is he a lobbyist for my ambitions like a politician? . . . Do we believe when it’s not beneficial?” The song, off 2017’s The Narrative, Volume 2, strikes a prophetic but personal tone, as Baraka confesses what is true for many of us: “I’ve let my problems become my savior / I’ve taken focus off the Lord and focused on my anger.”
“Praise to the Lord,” Sara Groves At a time of great cultural tension, with a world in flux, the hymns in Sara Groves’s Abide With Me are healing, grounding, steadying—both timeless and timely. Her rendition of the nearly 400-year-old hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (listen here) is a case in point. Simply produced, flawlessly executed; this is how contemporary recordings of hymns should be.
“Pray,” Sam Smith The lead single off Sam Smith’s latest album epitomizes the ways artists in a secular age push the boundaries of the immanent frame, invoking the soul and sounds of religion (gospel choirs!) while bypassing its institutional baggage. “I have never believed,” Smith sings. “But I’m gonna pray.”
“Real Death,” Mount Eerie Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) reflects on the death of his wife in “Real Death” (listen here), a song that captures as well as any the brutal, unnatural string of mortality: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.”
“Singing in the Victory,” Austin Stone Worship From their 2017 album, Everflow, this rousing track from Austin Stone Worship is one of the best new worship songs of the year (watch video here). The chorus is catchy and confident, calling us to sing in the victory of the cross, rest in Christ’s redeeming love, and stand in the promises of new life.
“Some Kind of Love,” The Killers An ethereal, synth-heavy, Brian Eno-esque ballad, “Some Kind of Love” (listen here) praises a wife and mother for having “the faith of a child before the world gets in” and “the grace of the storm in the desert”—for being strong, resilient, and capable of love, even amid the darkness of life.
“Thinking of a Place,” The War On Drugs Everything about this 11-minute opus—which might be the best overall song of 2017—is good, true, and beautiful. But the two-minute guitar solo in the middle is the song’s transcendent peak (listen here). It captures wordlessly what the song is all about: a transportive reverie of places, times, and loves we’ve lost—and to which we long to return.
“This Wild Earth,” Young Oceans One of the standout tracks off the latest album from Young Oceans—who are making some of the most musically exciting worship today—this song (listen here) channels the creational groaning of Romans 8:22, calling out to God to “come as the fire, or come as the rain / O, let there be life, life here again.”
“Truth,” Kamasi Washington The closing track on jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s latest album, Harmony of Difference, “Truth” is as ambitious and encompassing as its name implies. Clocking in at nearly 14 minutes, the instrumental epic includes a beautiful video that is Terrence Malick-esque in its attempts to capture the truth of life—both in its cosmic grandeur and everyday beauty—even when it seems chaotic.
“Watching from a Distance,” David Ramirez From his album We’re Not Going Anywhere, this song from Texas-based singer/songwriter David Ramirez (listen here) contemplates how relational rupture and distance can become a source of spiritual haunting: “Just cause we can’t speak / Doesn’t mean you’re not on my mind / Like a ghost / Like the moon / Like a God / Like a truth.”
“We Don’t Deserve Love,” Arcade Fire Arcade Fire have often explored themes of faith in their music, but this song (listen here) from Everything Now is especially direct about it. Invoking the story of Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb, lead singer Win Butler confesses guilt and sin but struggles to find comfort in the grace Jesus offers: “Mary, roll away the stone / The one that you love / Is gonna leave you alone / Particularly the Christ-types.”
“We Labor Unto Glory,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Madison Cunningham From Work Songs, debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project, this gorgeous song is surely one of the best worship recordings ever on the theme of vocation (watch video here). As Vice, Garrels, and Cunningham harmonize in the chorus, we work to God’s glory in the now-and-not-yet: “Oh, we labor unto glory / ‘Til heaven and earth are one / Oh, we labor unto glory / Until God’s kingdom comes.”
“We Will Feast in the House of Zion (Live),” Sandra McCracken Sandra McCracken’s “We Will Feast” is quickly becoming a new worship standard, for good reason. The song’s joy-filled, eschatological longing is perfect for corporate worship, as demonstrated in this live recording of the song (from 2017’s Steadfast Live). Watch the beautiful video here.
“Witness,” Benjamin Booker This song, from New Orleans artist Benjamin Booker (featuring a soulful sample of Mavis Staples), mixes gospel sounds with prophetic lyrics about race in 21st-century America (listen here; warning: explicit). The chorus is simply a repeated question: “Am I gonna be a witness? Just a witness?”