Donna Summer - I Believe in Jesus
The late disco queen Donna Summer released the hit "I Believe in Jesus" in 1982. Prior to this release her hits were often a little scandalous, and this song is an early hint at her conversion to Christianity. We'll miss you Donna!
George Harrison - My Sweet Lord
George Harrison’s journey to Hinduism is well documented. His 1970 version of this Billy Preston song was his public declaration of his faith. It is a hymn to the Hindu god Krishna, featuring traditional Hindu prayer phrases. The song features references to the Abrahamic faiths as well, making it somewhat of an anthem for the rampant and chaotic spirituality of that time period. Even with all this religiosity, it didn’t keep the song from being the subject of a copyright dispute.
Dishwalla - Counting Blue Cars
This catchy ‘90s rocker was the first mainstream hit for Dishwalla. It is a rare popular song that invokes God directly and in a positive way. By referring to God as a “she” the band generated curiosity and controversy, but the overall message of questioning and longing still shines through. The bassist for Dishwalla wrote this song, and his Mormon faith certainly guided this song.
Joan Osborne - One of Us
Speaking of controversial songs, Joan Osborne’s version of this song by oddly named group The Hooters is one of the more interesting lyrical songs from the ‘90s. Joan often sang the lyrics “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us?” with a slight air of contempt, but they still hold a layer of depth that is missing from most of the songs on this list. If God had a face, what would it look like?
Jars of Clay - Flood
Jars of Clay commands a large Christian audience today, and it’s easy to forget that their first big success actually came from secular radio. The song “Flood,” which is an upbeat acoustic tune that fell neatly with current groups like Toad the Wet Sprocket, picked up steam on rock radio behind the production of secular rocker Adrian Belew. While the band hasn’t found secular success again, Flood has remained one of the top radio hits by a band on a Christian label. Quite an accomplishment!
U2 - Gloria
"Gloria" may not be one of U2’s bigger hits, but it has stood the test of time in the hearts of their fans. Perhaps one reason it didn’t catch fire is that the chorus is in Latin - Gloria in Excelsis Deo – which you may recognize from a familiar Christmas hymn. The hilariously '80s video was their first to get serious airplay on MTV.
Lifehouse - Breathing
“Breathing” is one of the band’s more minor hits, but all of Lifehouse’s successful songs from the early 2000s had a very spiritual bent to them. While “Hanging By A Moment” was the most played song of 2001, this one just happened to be my personal favorite. It is always interesting to hear a song about spiritual longing and desperation on top 40 radio, and that was especially true when this ballad was released.
Matisyahu - King Without A Crown
Matisyahu is certainly one of the more intriguing artists in rap music today. His life as a Hassidic Jew takes center stage in his music, and it is something that he didn’t even shy away from in his first big radio hit. Singing “Givin' myself to you now from the essence of my being/And I sing to my God, songs of love and healing” is very unusual in modern rap may seem like a ticket for airplay dismissal, but for Matisyahu it is what makes him stand out.
Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken
A number 1 hit in 1972, this famous Cat Stevens song was actually a new version of a Christian hymn written by Eleanor Farjeon published in 1931. Much of Stevens’ work includes spiritual references, but this one revealed the most about his beliefs. Soon after Stevens converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf Islam and changing his lifestyle in dramatic fashion.
Switchfoot - Stars
Christian mainstream rock act Switchfoot has always toed the line between being expressively Christian and putting out a message that can inspire anyone. The closest they’ve come in a radio release is the hit “Stars” which contains the lyrics “When I look to the stars I see someone else.” Their singles have always served as a gateway to the more overtly religious albums, but the songs can still inspire anyone no matter what they believe.
Creed - My Own Prison
These days Creed is more of a punchline than a serious band, but there was a time when the Christian backdrop of their lyrics spurred serious discussions amongst rock lovers. “My Own Prison” contains some very blatant nods to lead singer Scott Stapp’s Christian upbringing, including the delightful drop D melodrama of being judged by God in a make believe courtroom. While Creed is still putting out albums with spiritual lyrics, these days they are usually undercut by events like Stapp changes the lyrics to glorify the Florida Marlins. Praise baseball!