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Best Gospel Songs: 50 Life-Affirming Expressions Of Faith
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List & Guides

Best Gospel Songs: 50 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…


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 music. 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 50 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: 50 Life-Affirming Expressions Of Faith

50: Wholy Holy

In 1967, Aretha Franklin took Otis Redding’s Respect and transformed the song into a female empowerment anthem that was more famous than the original recording. Five years later, she brought her incredible transformative powers to bear on another song by one of the best soul singers ever to have lived, this time Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy, plucked from the Detroit auteur’s groundbreaking 1971 concept album, What’s Going On. Gaye’s original, an ethereal ballad whose Biblical message preaches the power of love and unity, was reworked by Franklin (who was the first artist to cover the song) on her acclaimed 1972 gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in Los Angeles. Franklin’s inspired version is bolder, more dramatic and altogether grander than Redding’s, thanks in part to the “Queen Of Soul”’s  thrilling call-and-response vocal interplay with the sanctified cadences of the Southern California Community Choir, under the direction of James Cleveland. 


49: I’d Rather Have Jesus

The Canadian-born American Methodist minister, gospel singer and hymn writer George Beverly Shea co-wrote this affirmation of Christian faith, which was first recorded by Red Foley with The Jordanaires in 1952. Over the years, the song has mainly been recorded by white country singers, among them Jim Reeves and Loretta Lynn in the 60s; Willie Nelson in the 80s (as a duet with his sister, Bobbie Nelson); and Alison Krauss (with The Cox Family) in the 90s. African American gospel singer Marion Williams put a distinctively soulful spin on the tune via her 1975 album, Prayer Changes Things.

48: Wings Of A Dove

Inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark in the Book Of Genesis, in which God sends Noah a white dove to help search for dry land, Wings Of A Dove was written by Nashville songwriter and record producer Bob Ferguson and was first recorded by country singer Ferlin Husky, whose version spent ten non-consecutive weeks at the top of the US country charts following its release in 1960. The song has been a go-to for country singers over the years, recorded by everyone from George Jones to Dolly Parton. Nancy Griffith revamped it as a duet with Lucinda Williams on her 1998 album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful).

47: Move On Up A Little Higher

First recorded by Brother Sellers in 1946, this song by the prolific gospel songwriter W Herman Brewster was turned into a hit by gospel matriarch Mahalia Jackson a year later. Inspiring covers from such figures as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Humming Birds and Marie Knight, Move On Up A Little Higher quickly became accepted as one of the best gospel songs of the 20th century. The noted New York City-born singer Phoebe Snow recorded a bluesy interpretation as part of the soulful supergroup The Sisters Of Glory, who issued it on the 1995 gospel album Good News In Hard Times.

46: Spirit In The Sky

Norman Greenbaum was a singer-songwriter who scored a worldwide chart-topper with Spirit In The Sky, a catchy number with a Christian-themed message which mentions Jesus twice. The inspiration for the song came after Greenbaum, who was Jewish, switched on his TV and saw US country singer Porter Wagoner performing a gospel song. “I thought, Yeah, I could do that, knowing nothing about gospel music.” Greenbaum recalled. “So I sat down and wrote my own gospel song. It came easy. I wrote the words in 15 minutes.” The song was later a 1986 hit for the British band Doctor And The Medics. Indiana’s Stovall Sisters brought a distinctive gospel flavour to the song on their self-titled Reprise album in 1971.

45: Are You Ready

This hard-driving rocker by US blues outfit Pacific Gas & Electric was loaded with a subliminal, under-the-radar religious message that snuck into the US pop charts by stealth back in 1970. Are You Ready didn’t mention God by name – that would have been considered by many as tantamount to commercial suicide – but its salvation-themed lyrics talked about being “ready to sit by His throne”, and it comfortably takes its place among the best gospel songs. Are You Ready spawned several cover versions, including a disco one by Philadelphia soul group The Trammps, in 1984, and a soulful makeover by The Staple Singers a year later.

44: He’s Right On Time

First recorded by The Original Gospel Harmonettes in 1953, He’s Right On Time was written by the group’s powerful lead singer, Dorothy Love Coates, one of the pioneers of modern gospel music. The song’s popularity promoted a raft of sanctified cover versions, including notable ones by Mahalia Jackson, The Famous Caravans and soul singer Billy Preston (who recorded the song under its alternative title, You Can’t Hurry God, in 1980). In 1995, Chicago gospel singer Albertina Walker, performing as part of the supergroup The Sisters Of Glory – whose other members were Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, Phoebe Snow and Lois Walden – recorded a funky version for the album Good News In Hard Times.

43: The Lord’s Prayer

In 1973, a 36-year-old Australian nun and radio broadcaster called Sister Janet Mead took a catchy and well-produced pop-rock version of The Lord’s Prayer to No.4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song had the distinction of being the first US hit by a Roman Catholic nun since 1963, when Jeanine Deckers (aka “The Singing Nun”), topped the chart with Dominique. It wasn’t the first time The Lord’s Prayer was set to music: Albert Hay Melotte adapted the prayer in 1947, and his version has been recorded over 100 times, by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and Susan Boyle.

42: Get Away, Jordan

Originating from a traditional plantation song sung by slaves, this enduring gem among the best gospel songs was published in 1874 and received its first recording in 1923, as Give ’Way Jordan, by The Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Later recordings, such as Mahalia Jackson’s and The Original Gospel Harmonettes’ 50s versions – used the title Get Away, Jordan. The song was revived as a close-harmony jazz-gospel excursion by the US a cappella vocal sextet Take Six on their eponymous debut album, in 1988, and, more recently, Jools Holland and Ruby Turner joined forces to serve up an aisle-rocking version on their 2015 album, Jools & Ruby.

41: Surely God Is Able

Another durable gospel composition from the prolific pen of W Herbert Brewster, Surely God Is Able was first committed to vinyl in 1950 as a single by The Ward Singers, a group led by the Philadelphia-born singer Clara Ward, renowned for her spirited vocals. This uplifting paean to faith, stoicism and perseverance was later revived by Aretha Franklin on her second album devoted to sacred songs, 1987’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. The Sisters Of Glory resurrected the song in 1995, with a stirring rendition on their album Good News In Hard Times, featuring soul singer Thelma Houston on lead vocals.

40: 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.

39: The Old Ship Of Zion

The Old Ship Of Zion is an enduring but often overlooked gem from the “Father Of Gospel Music”, the prolific Georgia-born songwriter Thomas A Dorsey, who was responsible for many of the tunes still considered to be among the best gospel songs. First recorded in 1950 by The Roberta Martin Singers Of Chicago, the song was covered by the noted gospel singer Shirley Caesar in 1977, but has also attracted jazz musicians (US guitarist John Scofield) and soul singers (the UK’s Ruby Turner). A largely forgotten sextet called The Morning Star Gospel Singers also recorded a plaintive version of the song on their one-off album, 1963’s And The Morning Stars Sang!

38: Addictive Love

Detroit-based brother-and-sister duo, the Grammy-winning BeBe and CeCe Winans, were pioneers of an exciting new style of neo-inspirational music in the late 80s and early 90s. Marrying stirring, deeply soulful vocals with polished, high-tech pop production values, they took gospel music to a far wider audience than ever before. Like many of their songs, the self-penned Addictive Love – which topped the US R&B chart in 1991 – makes no overt reference to religion, and its cleverly ambivalent lyrics can be interpreted two ways: as an expression of earthly love or an outpouring of spiritual devotion among the best gospel songs.

37: Spirit In The Dark

Though Aretha Franklin was versatile enough as a singer to excel in different genres, from rhythm’n’blues to jazz, pop and disco, she never ventured too far from her church roots. Her gospel-music foundation shines through on her self-penned 1970 US smash, Spirit In The Dark, which she delivers with a sanctified fervour that ensures its place among the best Aretha Franklin songs. A year later, she performed the tune as a duet with the great Ray Charles on her iconic Live At Fillmore West album; that same year, flautist Herbie Mann slowed the tune to a simmering jazz-funk groove, reviving it for his 1971 album Push Push.

36: Milky White Way

A million-selling single in 1947 for a Baltimore quartet called The Trumpeters, Milky White Way came from the pen of the lead singer of another gospel group, Lander Coleman, of New Jersey’s The Coleman Brothers, who recorded the tune first. Elvis Presley gave the song even wider exposure in 1960, when he recorded it alongside The Jordanaires for his gospel album His Hand In Mine, but the most remarkable version came in 1988, when the a cappella vocal group Take 6 jazzed it up with their dazzling close-harmony work.

35: Prayed And I Prayed

A rowdy rave-up among the best gospel songs, Prayed And I Prayed is welded to a searing funk groove and was written by the Washington, DC-born Myrna Summers, a prolific, Grammy-winning singer who first recorded it with her group, The Interdenominational Singers, on their second album, 1971’s Tell It Like It Is. Summers and her ten-strong group trade their vocals in an exhilarating call-and-response fashion that conjures up all the heady fervour of a Baptist revival.

34: 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.

33: Ave Maria

Several different songs and pieces of music go under the name Ave Maria (whose Latin title refers to the Hail Mary prayer), but the most famous of all is based on Ellen’s Third Song, a classical lieder by the 19th-century German composer Franz Schubert. Defined by a sublimely soaring melody, the song has spawned almost 200 covers, ranging from versions by everyone from Bing Crosby to Andrea Bocelli and Michael Bublé. The song is also popular in gospel-music circles; Marion Williams recorded it as Heavenly Father, in 1971, and the “Queen Of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, recorded it on her 1987 gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

32: 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.

31: Go Down Moses

An old gospel tune based on the Old Testament story in which the prophet Moses seeks to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Go Down Moses evolved from a spiritual song and was first published in 1862. The first recording was in 1915 by The Tuskegee Institute Singers, and, since then, there have been almost 200 versions, the most notable of which have come courtesy of the deep-voiced singer and political activist Paul Robeson, who recorded Go Down Moses in 1943, and the New Orleans jazz singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who cut it in 1958. More recently, London soul singer Mica Paris acknowledged its continued status among the best gospel songs, when she updated it for her 2020 album, Gospel.

30: 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.

29: I Told Jesus (aka If He Changed My Name)

This slow, haunting ballad was famously recorded by Nina Simone in 1962 as If He Changed My Name, the title referring to the Christian belief that a newly baptised individual is reborn as a new person in the eyes of God. Though the song was attributed to a Louisiana attorney turned songwriter, Robert MacGimsey, it is believed to have originated as a traditional spiritual. Roberta Flack cut a mesmerising version on her 1969 debut album, First Take, under the title I Told Jesus.

28: Touch The Hem Of His Garment

Before he succumbed to temptation and defected to the world of secular music to become a much-feted pop star, Sam Cooke began his career as a member of the gospel quintet The Soul Stirrers. Among a number of candidates for a place alongside the best gospel songs, he wrote this memorable tune for the group in 1956, inspired by reading a Bible passage in which an ill woman is cured by touching Jesus’ robe. In the early 70s, the song received two notable but different interpretations, one by the ex-Blood, Sweat & Tears signer/organist Al Kooper, the other by the gospel a cappella group The Persuasions.

27: Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen

A spiritual which originated in the times of slavery, this poignant and much-recorded song about how faith nourishes hope and fortitude has long been a standard among the best soul songs. First waxed by The Tuskegee Institute Singers in 1916, Louis Armstrong’s famous 1938 version of Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen was one of many jazz interpretations – others ranged from versions by the bebop horn-blower Dizzy Gillespie to the free-jazz maven Albert Ayler. There were also covers of it in the world of soul music, most notably from The Staple Singers, Sam Cooke and Four Tops, who all cut the tune in the 60s, around the same time that Australian four-piece The Seekers recorded their own folk-pop version.

26: My Sweet Lord

It’s a rarity for a religious-themed record to top the charts, but in 1970, George Harrison became the first solo Beatle to score a No.1 record, with this mantra-like hymn of praise to the Hindu deity Krishna. A simple affirmation of faith couched in an infectious chorus, My Sweet Lord, despite its overtly spiritual message, enjoyed a universal appeal, spawning a slew of cover versions, including those by jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and easy-listening king James Last. Quickly regarded as one of the best gospel songs of the era, My Sweet Lord was also added to the repertoire of church singers; one of the best versions was recorded by the great US inspirational singer Marion Williams, who included it on her 1971 album, Standing Here Wondering Which Way To Go, transforming the song into a testifying soul sermon.

25: What A Friend We Have In Jesus

In 1868, the US composer Charles Crozat Converse turned What A Friend We Have In Jesus – a poem written for his mother by a preacher called Joseph M Scriven – into a hymn by writing a melody and chords for it. First recorded in 1899 by the baritone singer JJ Fisher, the song quickly became popular. Though famous singers such as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney recorded it in the 40s and 50s, arguably the most remarkable version is Aretha Franklin’s electrifying live-in-church rendition on her classic 1972 double-album, Amazing Grace.

24: 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”.

23: How I Got Over

An ecstatic hymn of gratitude praising Jesus, How I Got Over was written by William Herbert Brewster and was made famous by the influential US gospel pioneer Clara Ward, in 1951. The tune was also in the repertoire of another, more famous, gospel great, Mahalia Jackson, a singer whose melismatic vocal style helped to shape Aretha Franklin’s approach to singing. The “Queen of Soul” was captured performing her own version of How I Got Over at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972, for her live album Amazing Grace.

22: Abide With Me

Though associated with solemn occasions, such as funerals and Remembrance Day observances, this 19th-century song is frequently heard sung or played before sporting events. Its words were written by the Reverend Henry Lyte while he stayed with a dying friend, and it was converted into a hymn by composer William Monk. One of the earliest works among this list of the best gospel songs, Abide With Me made its recording debut in 1897 and has since been recorded by all kinds of musicians, among them gospel vocal groups (London’s The Inspirational Choir), jazz legends (Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald), pop icons (Emeli Sandé) and even British comedians (Vic Reeves). Abide With Me was purportedly played by a brass band on the ill-fated ocean liner The Titanic as it sank in 1912.

21: My Journey To The Sky

Famous for introducing a bluesy, proto-rock’n’roll element to gospel music with her electric guitar playing, Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded the self-written My Journey To The Sky in 1947, alongside singer Marie Knight with accompaniment by the Sam Price Trio. US blues singers Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt combined their talents in 1993 on a duet version recorded for a tribute album that paid homage to Tharpe’s legacy.

20: Old Time Religion

An early populariser of gospel music, Charles Davis Tillman copyrighted this song in 1873, though he didn’t write it. Old Time Religion was a Black spiritual he appropriated, which received its first recording in 1906, by a white harmony group called The Haydn Quartet. There have been many versions since, and the song’s universality has seen it transcend genres and bridge musical divides. Versions of Old Time Religion can be heard in the worlds of folk (Pete Seeger), blues (BB King), jazz (bassist Ray Brown with vibraphonist Milt Jackson), country (Johnny Cash) and gospel-soul (The Staple Singers). More recently, Americana revivalist Gillian Welch resurrected the song.

19: Optimistic

A life-affirming anthem about hope that melded a traditional Christian message with contemporary beats, Optimistic became a chart-busting single in the US for Sounds Of Blackness. Formed in 1969, the 40-strong gospel choir hailed from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, but didn’t find a wider, global audience until 1991, when R&B writers and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis wrote Optimistic for the group’s album The Evolution Of Gospel. One of the more recent entries among this list of the best gospel songs, Optimistic was later recorded by August Greene featuring Brandy, and the rapper Jadakiss used it as the basis for his tune Keep Ya Head Up.

18: 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.

17: 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.

16: 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.

15: 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.

14: 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.

13: I Shall Be Released

Bob Dylan first recorded this song of redemption in 1967, though that version wasn’t released until 1991. While Dylan’s original – regarded as one his greatest ever songs – sat in the archives gathering dust, a swathe of other artists recorded their own versions, ranging from groups as varied as The Band, The Hollies and The Box Tops to solo artists such as Joe Cocker, Bette Midler and even actor Telly Savalas, famous for his role as the 70s TV detective Kojak. The song’s spiritual message also resonated deeply with the gospel-reared singers Nina Simone and Marion Williams; the latter recorded a sanctified iteration on her 1969 album, The New Message.

12: 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.

11: Wade In The Water

The long-forgotten Sunset Four Jubilee Singers recorded the first version of this slavery-era spiritual, and the song is believed to have been used as a coded message to assist escaped slaves, informing them to make their way through waterways so as to avoid having their scent picked up by slave owners’ dogs. The Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis scored a big hit with his 1964 instrumental version, a finger-clicking soul-jazz jam, while other notable versions of Wade In The Water have come from a diverse array of acts, from Booker T And The MGs and Michelle Shocked to Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and the 80s UK band Fine Young Cannibals, , proving just how versatile the best gospel songs can be.

10: 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 album Gospel.

9: 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.

8: 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.

7: Come Sunday

Few gospel songs exceed the radiant beauty of this sacred number penned by the great Duke Ellington, who composed Come Sunday in 1932 as a saxophone-led instrumental for a suite called Black, Brown And Beige. In 1958, the jazz aristocrat transformed it into a song and recorded it with the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It quickly became a standard and, to date, has inspired almost 300 interpretations. Two of the best have come from jazz multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef (on his 1972 album, Hush ’N’ Thunder) and Kentucky gospel singer Donna McElroy, on her Grammy-nominated 1988 album, Bigger World.

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.

You’ve heard the best gospel songs, now see what Mica Paris had to tell Dig! about her stunning album Gospel.

Original article: 4 April 2021  

Updated: 17 April 2022, 9 April 2023 


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‘Batman’ At 35: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Dark Knight Soundtrack
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‘Batman’ At 35: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Dark Knight Soundtrack

Sung from the perspective the film’s main characters, each song on Prince’s ‘Batman’ album furthered his own explorations of light and dark.

Best Father’s Day Songs: 20 Tracks That Show Love For Dads
List & Guides

Best Father’s Day Songs: 20 Tracks That Show Love For Dads

Like our dads, the best Father’s Day songs can often be soft as well as strong – and they occupy a special place in our hearts.

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