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For a real music lover, paring a list like this to 10 is ultimately an excruciating task: You have to leave out some great stuff. But each of these albums/artists does it for me every time. I hope they do the same for you.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (MCA/Impulse, 1964). Many consider this not only Coltrane’s finest album but also one of the greatest jazz records by anyone. The title attests to the artist’s deeply spiritual aspirations; Coltrane made his intentions more explicit in his accompanying notes, describing a spiritual awakening in 1957 that made his life richer and his work more productive. He created A Love Supreme to praise the divine force that made his epiphany possible. The record presents a unitary piece in four movements-a serene “Acknowledgment,” the more fervent “Resolution,” the anguished, searching “Pursuance,” and the majestic “Psalm.” In the latter, you can almost hear words in Coltrane’s elegant, prayer-like solo. A Love Supreme is also notable because it represents the far edge of the accessible Coltrane. A few steps beyond straightahead jazz, it stops shy of the discordant, fast-flying, more formless style that made Coltrane’s later music hard for all but the most dedicated listeners to take in. Although the record is listed under Coltrane’s name alone, equal credit should also go to the other musicians who were members of Coltrane’s classic quartet: pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. This was a unit so tuned into each other and their musical purpose that, as Jones confirmed for me in a 1998 interview, they never once rehearsed in their entire career together. If that isn’t faith, what is? I can’t imagine any list of spiritual records without this disc near the top.
Mahalia Jackson: Gospels, Spirituals, & Hymns (Columbia/Legacy, 1991). Call this “blue spirituality.” In the African American church, spirituality has been colored historically by the agony of racially motivated assaults-discrimination, segregation, lynchings. That was certainly true when these recordings were made, in the 1950s and ’60s. As a result, the spirituality of Jackson, and many other leading lights of black gospel, is energized with a special urgency, and serves as a refuge from this life of sorrows. (For a haunting sample of this, listen to “Trouble of the World.”) At their best (for instance, the riveting “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), Jackson’s vocals convey a personal quest that transcends the denominational bounds of the lyrics and sets her apart from many of her peers. Still, don’t ignore other greats of black gospel, one of the richest veins of music, spiritual or otherwise, in the world. You might begin your exploration with vintage albums by Marion Williams, the Swan Silvertones, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes, and the Reverend Maceo Woods.
Van Morrison. Soul music has its roots in black gospel, which explains the intense spiritual feelings we get from a sweaty love song by, say, Otis Redding. Although Morrison was born in Belfast, he is a soul singer supreme in the manner of gospel-trained greats like Redding, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. He is also one of popular music’s most consistently spiritual songwriters. His lyrics include occasional Christian references, but his faith appears to be complex and ecumenical, and more mystical than religious. It began to poke through, cryptically, on Astral Weeks (Warner Bros., 1968) and in songs like “Brand New Day” on Moondance (Warner Bros., 1970). It dominates later records like No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Mercury, 1986) and Poetic Champions Compose (Mercury, 1987). Morrison’s aching devotion to an unseen presence is so pervasive that even his love songs take on a double meaning, like the Indian poet Kabir’s love verses to the Divine.
Victoria Williams: Loose (Atlantic, 1994). This album by the Louisiana-born singer/songwriter is not an overtly spiritual record, but Williams’s writing and performances reveal a bemused, enlightened love of life that isn’t dampened in the least by the multiple sclerosis from which she suffers. Victoria’s original songs will light up your day like a sunny spring morning in the woods. The underlying spiritual power of this music comes through most explicitly on the cover tunes. Williams sings “What a Wonderful World,” the standard by Robert Thiele and David Weiss, with a depth and charm that recalls Louis Armstrong’s classic rendition; the song’s title describes her spiritual outlook in a nutshell. The album closes with the lovely “Psalms,” by Don Heffington, who also plays drums on the record; Victoria’s gospel-rich vocals bridge Heaven and Earth.
Joseph Spence. A major influence on the American folk movement of the 1960s and folksy bluesmen like Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, Bahamian Joseph Spence sang like a witness to heavenly glory and played guitar like he was accompanying a chorus of angels. If you don’t know his name, you may know his music through covers of “I Bid You Goodnight” by Aaron Neville and by the Grateful Dead. Spence’s own records sound primitive to the uninitiated ear. So much music sprang from his soul that he apparently couldn’t contain himself. He sang like a man in continuous rapture, punctuating the lyrics with spontaneous trills, laughter, throaty rumbles, and other delightful idiosyncrasies. His guitar playing sometimes featured little melodic figures flying off in several directions at once, as if he heard a whole band in his head and was trying to play all the parts. Even a brief listen to his music should convince you that he radiated light and make you smile. The Spring of Sixty-Five (Rounder, 1992) combines some live backyard performance in the Bahamas with selections from his first public tour in the U.S. Spence is supported vocally by sister Edith Pinder and her family, whose contributions are just as raw and fervent as Spence’s own. You’ll swear the guitarist on the record is Cooder-that’s the kind of impact Spence had on him. The aptly titled Happy All the Time (Carthage, 1964), better recorded than most Spence discs, is a good one for those who want to zero in on his guitar style.
John Lennon: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Capitol, 1970). New Age marketing has turned spirituality into a commodity and a sedative, but if the millions who bought this record had internalized its message, that never would have happened. Lennon reminds us that the path to truth begins with the searing heat of self-examination, not the lazy acceptance of facile “truths.” In other words, being clear requires clearing. Recorded during a period when Lennon was undergoing Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy, Plastic Ono Band declares that emotional wounds should be felt, not sidestepped; that uncomfortable memories should be explored, not buried; and that beliefs should be shed, not accumulated. On the album’s penultimate track, “God,” Lennon clears out his belief closet, item by item: “I don’t believe in Magic…I don’t believe in I Ching… Bible…Tarot…Jesus…Buddha…Mantra…Elvis…Beatles,” and so on. When the closet is bare, he’s left with “Yoko and me, that’s reality.” One interpretation: God is love. This record is like rock and roll haiku, with melodies and arrangements stripped to the absolute essentials.
Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha. Classical Indian sitar music is spiritual by design. Like a guided meditation, the tabla drum lifts the music higher and higher, with the sitar improvising swirling, spiraling melodies on top and the tambura droning in the background. The sitar and tambura don’t sound strange to Western ears alone; they’re designed to sound strange to any ear, to lift listeners out of their ordinary frame of reference. Like many people of my generation, I was introduced to this musical form through Shankar. I bought his records and saw him perform live; on vinyl and in concert, I always liked it best when his tabla drummer was the esteemed Alla Rakha, who performed with a permanent, glowing smile on his face and whose music smiled, too. Although I learned to love other Indian music after that-in particular, the sarod mastery of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan-no raga was quite the same without Rakha’s propulsive magic. Good albums to start with: Sound of the Sitar (Beat Goes On, 1994) and Ravi Shankar in San Francisco (One Way, 1995).
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Popularity often indicates little about musical quality, but in some cases, it signifies undeniable greatness. So it is with the late Nusrat, who carried Sufi Qawwali singing to the West in the 1990s much as Ravi Shankar had done with Hindu ragas in the 1960s. His voice is a stunningly expressive instrument, and the devotional validity of his music is impossible to miss. The problem with Nusrat is excess. Spurred by enterprising record labels, he allowed his spiritual art to be diluted with remixes, nontraditional instruments, and glossy productions designed to snag Western ears and dollars. As a result, picking the most inspiring recordings out of his voluminous and much-compromised catalog is quite a challenge. Although a few of the culture-bridging experiments did succeed in musical terms-for example, Nusrat’s duets with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the Dead Man Walking film score-his traditional material is more spiritually satisfying in the long run. Best bets: Shahbaaz (Real World, 1991); Devotional Songs (Real World, 1992); and especially Greatest Hits, Vol.I (Shanachie, 1997), a compilation of more traditional fare recorded before his Western breakthrough.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Latin Mass in B Minor. What’s a nice Jewish boy like me doing recommending a piece of music written for a Christian worship service? Well, music this magnificent in structure and scope is too big to be contained within any one tradition. Indeed, scholars have noted that Bach wrote it to transcend both Catholic and Protestant bounds; the real message here is the light, not the window. Musically, this is widely considered to be one of the most wondrous works in the classical canon. I like the rendition with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (2 CDs: Archiv, 1985), which takes a quieter, more reflective approach than some. Gardiner’s reading draws you into the piece’s majesty rather than knocking you over with surface dramatics.
Hildegard von Bingen. For all its glories, you wouldn’t meditate to Bach’s Mass in B Minor; it’s not music for contemplation, because it’s so detailed that it leaves no room for your own quest and vision. Von Bingen’s music is different. A true mystic who lived in the twelfth century, she wrote spare, quiet, open-ended compositions that invite listeners to join her on the journey. The music’s modesty suggests a Taoist sense of the cosmic in the ordinary. At the same time, elements such as droning strings lend an air of other-worldliness that transports the listener beyond everyday trivialities and into mystery. The effect is much like what the tambura in classical Indian music achieves. Von Bingen’s works are available in both traditional arrangements and New Age-type versions enhanced with electronic instruments. I prefer the former; the modern trappings are just that to me-they trap the music in time and space, which undercuts its power. For starters, try Canticles of Ecstasy (BMG, 1994), Voice of the Blood (BMG, 1995), and the somewhat more earthbound Symphoniae: Spiritual Songs (BMG, 1997). Performances on each are by Sequentia’s medieval ensemble-primarily a women’s vocal group with accompaniment on period instruments.
Alan Reder is the coauthor of Listen to This!: Leading Musicians Recommend Their Favorite Recordings (Hyperion Books), a guide to recorded music based on interviews with more than 100 of popular music’s greatest artists. He is also coauthor of The Whole Parenting Guide: Strategies, Resources, and Inspiring Stories for Holistic Parenting and Family Living (Broadway Books, 1999).