A lot of compelling music has come from indie rock's complicated relationship with Christianity: Sufjan Stevens's folk hymns, David Bazan's tormented crises, the Thermals' blasphemous pop punk. They are the polar opposite of today's contemporary Christian rock, with its overt praises and Power Point presentation lyrics projected above electronic drum sets at megachurches across America.
Sometimes, though, the two paths cross in unusual ways. Here are six indie-rock songs that sound like Christian songs. Feel free to let us know what we missed. But remember: What would Jesus do?
The Hold Steady's "First Night." What's a postmodern bar-band album without a gospel-piano power ballad? Even singer Craig Finn's references to prostitution and beer can't turn this tune sinful. Every time we hear "First Night," it's hard not to imagine a carpeted auditorium full of good Christian people, swaying slowly with their right hands in the air to let the spirit in.
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Popular Mechanics' "364 Days a Year." This song was Missouri band Popular Mechanics' contribution to A Very Bert Dax Christmas, Volume Eight. Frankly, it's a song about taking acid on Christmas Day and hallucinating about meeting Jesus. Vocalist Dave Todd sings "Oh God" on infinite repeat, which might sound like an extended musical prayer if you miss him mentioning, "My friend, Jesus Christ, you might be nice/But common sense says I've gotta be high."
The Mountain Goats' "Old College Try." John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is easily one of our greatest living songwriters. Often, his stripped-down arrangements and spiritual fascinations yield fascinating work, such as The Life of the World to Come, an album with each track named for a Bible verse. But once in a blue moon, the same elements drive Darnielle dangerously close to the easily digestible stylings of God-fearing radio. "Old College Try" is that kinda song, pairing the official strumming pattern of Christian rock with a soaring organ. The hook — "I will walk down to the end with you" — is one of those great moments when you could be either a lady or God. We assume the former, because the next line is "If you will come all the way down with me," and most love letters to the heavens don't contain an ultimatum.
Band of Horses' "Funeral." The candlelight vigil that begins the video for Band of Horses' 2006 breakout single, "The Funeral," is not a literal depiction of a Sunday-morning worship service, but it has that vibe. The cleanest of electric guitars picks slow chords like a pipe organ, and vocalist Ben Bridwell comes off as particularly confessional. The line "to know you is hard" could refer to the struggle of faith. Well, if it weren't preceded by "I'm coming up only to hold you under." Or is that just a weird baptism reference?
Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." Ever watched television? Then you've probably heard Jeff Buckley's take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" score some weepy show's most dramatic scene. (Hell, John Cale's version was in Shrek.) For his part, though, Buckley particularly favored the sexual connotations that might come with uttering "Hallelujah." Yet the song's hook is very similar to the "Hallelujah" commonly sung in Catholic weddings. So it sounds like Christian rock. But it could also pass as Buddhist rock. It's an open-ended anthem of spirituality, adaptable to any time, place, or person in need of instant significance. Proving once and for all that Jesus rocks. And Buddha too.