Whereas most of the Bible is about recording the word of the Divine, the Psalms are a comprehensive compendium of our outgoing letters, filled with praise, anger, longing, love, jealousy, frustration, regret, grief, joy, and many questions. While the addressee is a specific god who doesn’t necessarily belong to everyone, the emotions are human and they are universal.
During The Psalms Experience, which will take place November 1–11 as part of the White Light Festival, four choirs will sing 150 works by 150 composers spanning 1,000 years of music. This playlist—inspired by the concert series and the eclectic mixtapes of my ’90s youth, filled with coded messages and cries for help—brings together 34 modern psalms from the past six decades of (mostly) English-language popular music.
Many of these selections quote the Psalms directly—the opening to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” is perhaps the most iconic psalm reference in pop music history, although most people can also sing along to the classic reggae anthem “By the Rivers of Babylon.” U2’s 40, one of many U2 songs that lifts lines from the Psalms, is one of the band’s go-to encores, with fans joining their voices into an impromptu chorus chanting, “How long to sing this song?” Bono’s fascination with the Psalms is well documented here and here.
Others are inspired by the sentiments of a single psalm, like Lauryn Hill’s fierce Judgment Day warning “Final Hour" or Sufjan Stevens’s crushing exploration of grief in “John My Beloved” (Ps. 31). There are also a few that made the list simply because they are psalm-like and songs I love: my favorite cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" by k.d. lang, for example, which tells a story of the Bible’s most famous (and now disputed) psalmist, David.
This list is not exhaustive nor is it representative of all the different cultural manifestations of the psalms. Enya’s haunting Irish recitation of Psalm 91 in Sinéad O’Connor’s “Never Get Old” and Danay Suárez’s “Integridad” are the only non-English moments. There is little gospel music and I chose not to open the door into the enormous world of religious rock. Dissociate the original texts and ask the question, “What would a psalm say today?”, you’d get an even broader selection. No, this is just what I was able to unearth, but I want to know: What songs would you include in your own psalms mixtape? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter. And happy listening.
“Jesus Walks” – Kanye West (Ps. 23)
“Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)” – Matisyahu (Ps. 137)
“Be Still” – Kelly Clarkson (Ps. 46)
“I Wish You Well” – Mariah Carey (Ps. 129)
“Psalm 23” – India.Arie (feat. MC Lyte) (Ps. 23)
“Awake My Soul” – Mumford & Sons (Ps. 57)
“Psalm 40:2” – The Mountain Goats (Ps. 40)
“Be Still and Know” – Machine Head (Ps. 46)
“I Am a God” – Kanye West (Ps. 82)
“John My Beloved” – Sufjan Stevens (Ps. 31)
“By the Waters of Babylon” – Will Butler (Ps. 137)
“To the Great Unknown” – Cloud Cult
“How Great?” – Chance the Rapper feat. Jay Electronica and My cousin Nicole (Ps. 34)
“33 ‘God’” – Bon Iver (Ps. 22)
“Integridad” – Danay Suárez feat. Stephen Marley (Ps. 101)
“Psalm 136 Mercy and Loving Kindness” – Jessi Colter (Ps. 136)
“40” – U2 (Ps. 40)
Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Graphics by Cecily Moore