I’m most drawn to music in which I can hear a yearning or striving towards peace, hopefulness, or some sort of enlightenment. This is the type of music that most frequently uplifts me. Big, brash songs in a major key—the type that they play in big box stores around the holidays—have never had much effect on me. I’ve always found songs that feel bittersweet—some mix of melancholy hope and vulnerability and searching—to be most true to my experience of life.
“Trenchtown Rock” by Bob Marley & The Wailers live at The Roxy Theater, May 1976
I’ve always been resistant to the idea of having a “favorite song of all time.” As we grow and change, so do the qualities that we need and desire in the art that we engage with. That said, this particular rendition of “Trenchtown Rock” is pretty close to a perfect thing, in my opinion. It has so much to do with the first 30 seconds of the recording: The band is bubbling and vamping, and you can hear Bob enter the stage at the 23 second mark because the crowd loses it. There’s something about this moment that has always made me feel like crying. The collective joy in the room is palpable. “One good thing about music: When it hits, you feel no pain.” What a beautiful sentiment.
“Like a Ship” by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir
It can be so hard to agree on a common language in discussions about things like spirit and faith—things that feel so subjective in so many ways—but when I hear Pastor Barrett singing, it sounds like it’s coming from a genuine place of feeling. There’s something about how he’s phrasing and pushing his voice that feels real. Define that how you will, it gets me in my gut.
“As He Walked Into the Field” by Robert Stillman
This comes from an album that Robert Stillman made in 2016 called Rainbow. The whole record is exquisite and this song might be the highlight for me.
I don’t get the sense that a ton of people know about Rob’s music, but I consider the way that he mixes light and dark and grace and grief one of the high-water marks of emotional complexity in my record collection, almost like Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” There are parts of this song that make you feel like weeping—the way he resolves the main piano figure around 1:24, for instance, is so deeply human that it’s just kind of breathtaking. Rob plays everything on this album and he is also, strangely enough, the younger brother of my wife’s best childhood friend. Life is really fun that way.
“Jesus Was a Cross Maker” by Judee Sill
Even the most cursory research about Judee Sill—who wasn’t commercially successful when she was making records in Los Angeles in the early 1970s—will reveal a life rife with grief and tragedy, but what I find remarkable is just how broad and full and deep her emotional palette was, and how profoundly musical her albums are. Only someone as brilliant as Judee could take parts of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ and turn them into a send-off to an ex-lover.
(It also bear mentioning that my friend Erin Rae—also a brilliant songwriter and singer—does a rendition of this song that is just about as deep as the original.)
“The Makings of You” by Curtis Mayfield
I spent a long time thinking about which Curtis Mayfield song should be on this list. He’s a songwriter that had the preternatural ability to write about the potential and value of hope in times of darkness and chaos. His songs are so often the perfect soundtrack to collective action: “We’re a Winner.” “Move On Up.” “People Get Ready.” He just had that one-in-a-million thing, you know? He knew how to say it, and he knew how to sing it. “The Makings of You” feels a bit more personal and introspective than some of his other work, but the way that the lead vocal melody leans against the string and horn arrangements is really spine-tingling and otherworldly.
“Turiya & Ramakrishna” by Alice Coltrane
The music of Alice Coltrane has been a source a comfort to which I have continually returned since I first purchased a copy of her album Journey in Satchidananda at Aron’s Records on Highland Boulevard in the late 1990s. There are so many different glimmering facets of Alice’s music: The shimmering string arrangements of World Galaxy and Lord of Lords, the gently loping harp and bass and bells of Journey in Satchidananda, the ecstatic singing of Turiya Sings and her collected ashram recordings, the plaintive searching of A Monastic Trio and Huntington Ashram Monastery. I find something new in her music every time I listen to it.
“Children Crying” by The Congos
This comes from a remarkable album titled Heart of the Congos that was recorded by visionary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at his Black Ark studio in the mid-1970s. There’s something haunting and luminous about this particular record. Most of my music listening these days, and for the past several years, is directed towards reggae created between 1970 and 1980, much of which was devotional in nature. To me, there’s something really special and transporting to hear songs of faith sung over a wicked and deep groove.
“Mannenberg Revisited” by Abdullah Ibrahim
I originally learned about this song under the title of “Cape Town Fringe” on an album of the same name and credited to Dollar Brand instead of Abdullah Ibrahim, the name the pianist adopted after converting to Islam in 1968. In my opinion, any discussion about the way that hope functions in music has to include some consideration of South African/Township jazz; the way that those musicians, including Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Hugh Masekela, and so many others imbued their music with joy and sorrow in equal measure is really moving. The way that Abdullah Ibrahim voices his chords is magical—there’s so much more going on than the just the notes that his fingers are touching.
“Future Days” by Can
Can was a band based in Cologne, Germany, that formed in 1968; this song comes from an album also called Future Days that was released in 1973. There’s something hypnotic, trance-inducing, and almost rapturous about the sound that Can makes. Coming out of post-war Germany, they were engaged, by necessity, in some profound and important musical world building, and because of that their music always feels fresh and new to me.
“Sheep Don’t You Know the Road” by Bessie Jones
Bessie Jones possessed one of the greatest American voices of the 20th century, in my opinion. By “greatest,” I suppose that I mean that it feels like it carried multitudes within it in a way that many other voices don’t or can’t. It’s wounded, joyful, searching, confident, hidden—it’s all there. She seems like she would have been a wonderful person to know.
“Brother” by Jorge Ben Jor
This is one of the rare tunes of Jorge Ben’s that he sings in English. It comes from an incredible album called Tabua de Esmeralda that just feels sort of emotionally bottomless. It’s fun and funky and dark and questing all at once. “Jesus Christ, He is my Lord. Jesus Christ, He is my friend.”
“Prayer to the People” by Clifford Jordan Quartet
Like so many others, I found the burdens of 2020 to be almost unbearable. More than anything else, music helped me cope. Somehow I stumbled upon this record—called Glass Bead Games—and found it to be the perfect companion most days. There’s something devotional about this record—it sort of lives in the same place as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, maybe. And the sound of a group of people making music together in a room—that always sounds good to me.
“Homesickness, Pt. 1” by Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Geubrou
What can I say about this recording? It’s perfect.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album, Quietly Blowing It, is out now. Order it here.