Ten mainstream albums every Christian should hear

Jesus and music are my favorite topics of conversation. But when I’m talking with people outside the church, I usually can’t talk about the music of Michael W. Smith.

Here’s a list of must-hear mainstream albums from the last 50 years that have been formational for generations of people both inside and outside the church. Critically and commercially successful, they’re great for striking up a conversation with people from all walks of life.

1. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963. This seminal folk album captures the cultural unrest and spiritual restlessness a-brewing in the 1960s.

2. Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, 1966. Lush, summery pop sounds belie Pet Sounds’ autumnal lyrics. Coming-of-age stories contrast with beautiful music to capture the beauty and pain of life as a teen (or anyone).

3. Marvin Gaye, What's Goin’ On, 1971. Gaye’s R&B album sings of war, racial prejudice and ecology, without ever sounding preachy.


4. Bob Marley, Exodus, 1977. Marley was the ambassador of reggae, and no album captures his pacifism, activism, spirituality and love like Exodus.

5. The Clash, London Calling, 1979. Punk has evolved musically since this album, but anti-establishment themes remain. While most Christians stayed silent about materialism and corporate greed, the Clash didn’t.

6. Paul Simon, Graceland, 1986. This pop/world music masterpiece made apartheid look foolish. Collaborations between all parties involved were historical, beautiful and gave us a little taste of heaven: unity in diversity.

7. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman, 1988. It makes sense that an African-American female singer-songwriter would craft the quintessential album about injustice. The sound is timeless; unfortunately, so are the issues.

8. R.E.M., Automatic for the People, 1992. The alternative and grunge movements of the early 1990s took a little pause from self-destruction to listen to this album about mortality, struggle and hope.

9. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998. Hip-hop still misses Ms. Hill. There has never been a singer/rapper so talented and with so much to say about relationships between people and God.

10. Arcade Fire, Funeral, 2004. Indie rock was still in its early stages of commercial success when Arcade Fire recorded this album about isolation, loss and life amid grief. Several band members lost family members and two got married during the time they were recording.

What Do You Think?

  • What’s missing from this list?
  • What albums on this list do you especially appreciate?
  • What titles don’t belong?

Adam Stout shares the title of co-associate pastor of congregational life at Grace Valley Christian Reformed Church in German Valley, Ill. with his seminary sweetheart and new bride, Erin. This piece originally ran in The Banner. / Illustration courtesy of iStockphoto.

Comments (11)

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Great list. I’d add:

Switchfoot, “The Beautiful Letdown” particularly the closing track, “24” is a powerful testimony of relinquishment to God of the apparent earthly immortality one often feels at 24 yrs old.

Indigo Girls, “All That We Let In” particularly the title track about the power of love.

The Fray, “How to Save a Life”

Bruce Springsteen, “The Rising” - many grace-filled songs of healing and recovery

Relative newcomer: Anberlin’s “Cities” and “Dark is the Way, Light is a Place”

I’d add Mumford & Sons, “Sigh No More.” Track 12, After The Storm, is one of my favorites.

Nice list, particularly in the breadth of styles and eras.


Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” is a great concept album talking about separation and is imminently listenable.

It’s a bit cliché perhaps, but the last Mad Men season brought it back into the forefront: The Beatles’ “Revolver” remains an incredible album with a little something for everyone.

It came up in a FB conversation the other day: The Cure’s music is a definite conversation starter. I find “Disintegration” to be some of their most accessible music, not quite as quirky or utterly hopeless as a lot of their earlier music.

And I *still* remember talking a LOT with friends about Alice in Chains’ “Dirt”. If there was another album that dealt with drugs and despair as effectively, I’ve never heard it.

No Johnny Cash? For shame.

I love just about everything on all the lists! I’d add:

U2 - “Joshua Tree” (for the kids and everyone who slept through the 80’s and 90’s)

Sufjan Stevens - “Seven Swans” (maybe it’s because the lyrics are inspired by passages from the Bible but I find that the album is refreshing and inspires real spiritual reflection)

Manchester Orchestra - “Everything to Nothing” (because it poignantly reflects those periods of doubt and drifting. The song “The River” reminds me of how fragile my own resolve can be and how much I need grace.)

This list needs some work. Tracy Chapman? Great record, hardly influential. Arcade Fire? An amalgamation of two decades of indie rock & art punk. You would have done better to name any indie rock band from the last 20 years. Automatic for the People is a great record, but hardly REM’s landmark achievement. I will give you Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan, though.

Although I think Christians should just listen to as much music as possible, regardless of labels, I do have a few suggestions to add:

John Coltrane’s Ascension shakes you up. It does maintain a relatively recognizable melodic motif, but is mostly long sections of group and individual improvisation. A Love Supreme might be a tinge more accessible, but for me he reached his apex with the successor to that album.

If you want to talk about music’s ability to express transcendence or joy, then progressive rock is your place. Yes’s Close to the Edge is a good example with which to start.

More recently, I would recommend the solo work of Steven Wilson. He works in the modern progressive rock scene and has created some of the finest modern “rock” music out there.

I also think more people should treat themselves to the last Microphones album Mount Eerie (not to be confused with the later band of the same name). Unsettling but it settles into your spine. Many shivers.

I second “Cities” by Anberlin, “Everything to Nothing” by Manchester Orchestra, Mumford and Sons, and anything by Sufjan Stevens.

I’d like to add:

“Curse Your Branches” by David Bazan (one of the most challenging albums I’ve ever listened to. It’s been described as his breakup letter to Christianity)
“Mine is Yours” by Cold War Kids
“Beggars” and “Major/Minor” by Thrice

You’ve got to get some Johnny Cash in there somewhere.

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