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Best Gospel Songs: 20 Life-Affirming Expressions Of Faith
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List & Guides

Best Gospel Songs: 20 Life-Affirming Expressions Of Faith

From euphoric celebrations of salvation to optimistic messages of hope and redemption, the best gospel songs continue to uplift and inspire…

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People have sung songs of praise since time immemorial in a sacred union of music and religion that is among the oldest human traditions. In the last 100 years, gospel has been one of the most popular forms of music inspired by spiritual beliefs. Evolving from Anglican hymns and 19th-century black spirituals, it flourished in the 20th century, and its emotionally powerful approach went on to have an enormous impact on several secular music styles, influencing soul, jazz, blues and rock. Though not often deemed a mainstream music, gospel has conquered pop charts around the world – and, as this run-down of the best gospel songs reveals, some songs with gospel messages snuck into the charts undetected.

Here, then, are the 20 best gospel songs of all time. Anticipate exhilarating testimonials of faith, soothing balms to heal weary souls, and life-affirming revelations that invoke the holy spirit.

Best Gospel Songs: 20 Rousing Sanctified Evergreens

20: Shackles (Praise You)

In 2000, California vocal duo Mary Mary – sisters Erica and Tecina Atkins-Campbell – wedded a spiritual message with an infectious R&B-slanted chorus and banging hip-hop beats to create a contemporary gospel classic that stormed the pop charts around the globe. The song conquered the Top 5 in the UK and was later covered by US gospel singer Mandisa on her Grammy nominated 2007 debut album, True Beauty, and also sampled by UK rapper Stormzy on his 2019 track Rainfall.

19: Ain’t No Need To Worry

An all-male sibling quartet from Detroit, The Winans helped to launch a gospel music renaissance in the 80s by blending traditional spiritual values with contemporary R&B production. On this song, released by Quincy Jones’ Qwest label, they teamed with the silky-voiced soul singer Anita Baker to articulate a gladdening message of hope and trusting in God’s wisdom. The song won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance By A Duo Or Group, Choir Or Chorus.

18: Yah Mo B There

Sometimes, the best gospel songs can sneak into the charts unnoticed. Most of the people who bought James Ingram’s Yah Mo B There (featuring Michael McDonald) and helped to propel it into the pop charts around the world didn’t realise that, behind the sleek Quincy Jones-produced dance groove from 1983 there was a profound message about finding peace and deliverance by embracing God. The word “Yah” is, in fact, short for Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God; the song’s title can be translated as “God will be there”.

17: Jesus Is Just Alright With Me

First recorded by the West Coast gospel group The Art Reynolds Singers in 1966 as a piano-driven churchy stomper with wailing choral vocals, Jesus Is Just Alright With Me was transformed into bluesy, riff-heavy chunk of hard rock by The Doobie Brothers on their 1972 album, Toulouse Street. Using the Doobies’ version as a template, Robert Randolph And The Family Band served up a turbo-charged rendition in 2006, which featured a cameo from blues-rock guitar god Eric Clapton.

16: The Cross

While the unbridled sexuality of Prince’s music may have shocked those of a strict religious persuasion across the 70s, 80s and 90s, a strong sense of spirituality had always inhabited his music. Taken from his 1987 double-album, Sign O’ The Times, The Cross is a slow-building, guitar-driven rock anthem about the Second Coming of Christ. After he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, Prince continued to perform the song live but retitled it The Christ because his faith stipulated that Jesus died on a stake, rather than a cross. The tune has since been covered by German alt-rock group Heroina and the veteran US gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama.

15: Down By The Riverside

Though it wasn’t published until 1918, when it appeared in Plantation Melodies: A Collection Of Modern, Popular And Old-Time Negro-Songs Of The Southland, Down By The Riverside’s origins date back to before the US Civil War. Also known by the alternative titles Ain’t Gonna Study No More and Gonna Lay Down My Burden, the song, which uses Biblical imagery, made its debut on record in 1920 thanks to The Fisk Jubilee Singers. A measure of its place among the best gospel songs is the plethora of cover versions it has inspired, from gospel acts Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward to rock’n’rollers Bill Haley And The Comets and Van Morrison, who recorded it during the sessions for his 1971 album, Tupelo Honey.

14: Peace In The Valley

Though written in 1937 by noted gospel songwriter Thomas A Dorsey specifically as a vehicle for the magnificent voice of Mahalia Jackson, Peace In The Valley was first taken into the charts by a country group, Red Foley And The Sunshine Boys, in 1951. Gospel group The Soul Stirrers – with a young Sam Cooke in its ranks – and Elvis Presley also recorded the tune in the 50s, while, in the following decade, Little Richard and Johnny Cash put their respective marks on the song.

13: Jesus On The Mainline

American singer/guitarist Ry Cooder helped to popularise Jesus On The Mainline by including it on his 1974 album, Paradise And Lunch. Though it’s credited as a traditional song, its roots are shrouded in mystery and it is thought to have originated in the 20th century. Reverend Gatemouth Brown And His Gospel Singers cut it in 1960 and blues man Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded it on his 1969 album, the memorably titled I Do Not Play No Rock’n’Roll. Since then, there have been a spate of cover versions, from hard rock mavens Aerosmith to New Orleans retro-jazz ensemble The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and soul singers Mavis Staples and Ruby Turner.

12: He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

For many aficionados of inspirational music, Mahalia Jackson – who had a profound influence on a young Aretha Franklin – recorded many definitive versions of the best gospel songs. He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, which she took into the US pop charts in 1958, was one of her signature songs. Based on a traditional black spiritual, the tune was first published in 1927 and has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Andy Williams. In 1995, a gospel supergroup called The Sisters Of Glory (whose members included soul singer Thelma Houston, dance diva CeCe Peniston, singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow and gospel star Albertina Walker) cut a memorable Afrobeat-influenced version on their album Good News In Hard Times.

11: Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

Originally a hymn about reuniting with departed loved ones in the afterlife, Will The Circle Be Unbroken? was written in 1907 by Ada R Habershon and Charles H Gabriel, but later modified by AP Carter of the country group The Carter Family. Immensely popular at church revivals, the song has been covered by many rock acts, including The Doors (who performed it live), The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Allman Brothers and the duo Delaney And Bonnie, who reconfigured the song into a strident folk-blues number, as heard on the expanded deluxe version of their classic 1970 album, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour With Eric Clapton. Another notable version was by renowned Miami gospel singer Marion Williams, who transformed it into a funky soul sermon on her 1969 Atlantic album, New Message.

10: Put Your Hand In The Hand

A No.2 US pop hit for Canadian singer Anne Murray in 1971, the gospel-tinged Put Your Hand In The Hand is a rousing singalong anthem written by Quebecois tunesmith Gene MacLellan. The tune was later covered by Elvis Presley, Joan Baez and Bing Crosby, as well as gospel singer Marion Williams. One of the best versions came from the church-reared soul singer and pianist Donny Hathaway, who imbued the song with a gospel-revival feeling when he recorded it as the closing cut of his second Atlantic album, 1971’s Donny Hathaway.

9: A Change Is Gonna Come

Though not considered a gospel tune by the genre’s purists, Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come is steeped in the melodic cadences and spiritual messages that define the best gospel songs. Cooke rose to fame in the spiritual group The Soul Stirrers before succumbing to the allure and temptation of secular music, but the sound of the church never left him, and this 1964 civil-rights anthem’s message of hope and perseverance still resonates in the Black Lives Matter era. Other notable recordings of the song include versions by Solomon Burke and Tina Turner, while in more recent times there have been fervid interpretations by Leela James, Seal and Mica Paris, who transformed the tune into a fiery soul sermon on her 2020 album, Gospel.

8: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Not a gospel song in the purest sense, Simon And Garfunkel’s classic 1970 Grammy-winning tune nevertheless has a deeply sanctified vibe, perhaps because songwriter Paul Simon was purportedly inspired by the line “I’ll be your bridge over deep water”, which he heard in The Swan Silvertones’ version of Mary Don’t You Weep. With its message of solace, support and selflessness, the tune has been recorded multiple times by a host of artists from different musical backgrounds, though two of its most memorable renditions were recorded in 1971 for Atlantic Records by Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack, who both infused the song with deep gospel inflections and claimed it for the 70s black music canon.

7: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

With its haunting melody married to evocative Biblical metaphors, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is an archetypal spiritual. Its writer was a freed slave, Wallis Willis, who wrote it in the immediate years following the US Civil War, and it was recorded as early as 1909 by The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Many other singers have recorded it since, from jazz vocalists (Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong) and country icons (Johnny Cash) to rock musicians (Eric Clapton). 50s pop idol turned saloon singer Bobby Darin liked it so much that he recorded it twice: he gave it a swinging makeover on his 1960 live album, Darin At The Copa, and then made a more gospel-flavoured studio recording as a single B-side four years later.

6: Mary Don’t You Weep

A biblical-themed spiritual whose roots stretch back into a pre-Civil War time of slavery, Mary Don’t You Weep was first recorded as far back as 1915 by The Fisk Jubilee Singers. Gospel groups The Caravans, The Soul Stirrers and The Swan Silvertones all helped to assert its position among the best gospel songs in the late 50s, but in 1972, Aretha Franklin arguably recorded the definitive version with a rousing rendition featuring call-and-response vocals which served as the opening cut of her Amazing Grace album. Eleven years later, Prince recorded a stripped-down version of the tune, which appeared on his posthumously released 2018 album, Piano & A Microphone 1983.

5: His Eye Is On The Sparrow

Dating from 1905 and often mistakenly credited as a traditional song, this gospel staple was written by Civilla D Martin and Charles H Gabriel, who were inspired by Bible verses from The Book Of Psalms and The Gospel Of Matthew. Ethel Waters and Mahalia Jackson, whose 1958 version received a Grammy Hall Of Fame award in 2010, helped to widen the song’s audience. Soul singers such as Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Diana Ross all recorded it, and in 1973 jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef recorded a soul-stirring version featuring The JC White Singers on his album Hush’n’Thunder.

4: When The Saints Go Marching In

No list of the best gospel songs would be complete without this rousing number, which, despite its apocalyptic imagery, is associated with celebration. Evolving from a 19th-century spiritual, When The Saints Go Marching In was first recorded by The Paramount Jubilee Singers in 1923 and soon became a staple in the repertoires of many black gospel groups. Despite its church roots, the tune became indelibly associated with the riotous brass-band sound of New Orleans jazz bands, thanks largely to singer/trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s popular 1938 recording. Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley were among the other major performers who interpreted the tune.

3: Oh Happy Day

An exultant celebration of faith and redemption, Oh Happy Day was a Grammy-winning international hit for the Californian gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers, whose 1969 version adapted a 18th-century hymn by English clergyman Philip Doddridge. Those who later covered the song included country singer Glen Campbell, soul queen Aretha Franklin and New Jack Swing group Club Nouveau, whose modernised version hit the US charts in 1994. In 2020, church-reared British singer Mica Paris breathed new life into the song with a spirited reboot, paying homage to the group that first inspired her to sing.

2: Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Written by one of the principal architects of modern black gospel music, songwriter Thomas A Dorsey (1899-1993), Precious Lord, Take My Hand was based on a 19th-century hymn by Massachusetts composer George Nelson Allen. A song about perseverance, hope and salvation, it was purportedly a favourite of the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, and was often sung at his rallies by Mahalia Jackson. Aretha Franklin sang a poignant version of the song at Jackson’s funeral in 1972; that same year, she delivered a supercharged rendition of the tune on her Amazing Grace album. Disco queen Candi Staton also recorded a striking interpretation on her 1978 album, House Of Love.

1: Amazing Grace

Topping our list of the best gospel songs is this resilient tune from 1772 – one of the oldest and most enduringly popular songs of faith. Amazing Grace was written by English poet and preacher John Newton about his own spiritual salvation. Defined by a haunting melody, the song was first put on wax by The Original Sacred Harp Choir in 1922, and has since been recorded over 1,000 times. Those who have recorded the song range from “The King Of Rock’n’Roll” Elvis Presley to gospel matriarch Mahalia Jackson and folk queen Joan Baez. One of the most powerful renditions was cut by the “The Queen Of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, in 1972, on her gospel-themed double-album of the same name. More recently, Mica Paris put her own stamp on Amazing Grace via an impassioned rendition on her Gospel album.

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