As I’ve walked the path of my own spiritual enlightenment, I can’t help but be envious of people who attend church on a regular basis. Routine has never been a friend to me, and the idea of regularly attending a place of spiritual contemplation seems like a healthy habit, in theory.
Gospel music is an underrated part of the religious experience. How could you not feel the Holy Spirit after rocking out for like 10 minutes? Honestly, every experience in life should have uplifting jams. Grocery stores, dentist office, DMV! Come on. My license photo wouldn’t look like a mug shot if they bumped Leon Bridges right before they took it.
It’s no secret that music is an enormous part of my identity, and thus, SNDTRK was birthed. Music is medicinal, able to shift moods and behaviors. It brings us relaxation or causes us to mosh, and everything in-between.
So what would a non-denominational spiritual experience sound like? These are not necessarily my top choices, but I wanted to offer a variety of songs that invite happiness, spark imagination, or bring solace, and inspire us to look inward to better understand our own little pocket of the Universe.
Out of Time - Pretty Lights
Without going into too much detail (my Oma reads this stuff, okay?), the only time I’ve had my psyche strengthened by performance enhancers was at a 2012 Pretty Lights concert in Charlotte. (To be fair, I am curious about the world of hallucinagenics and bought Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” for such a time). I was becoming a huge fan of his approach to instrumental hip-hop. His songs are cinematic and textured. Like with many artists, seeing Pretty Lights perform live unlocked another level of appreciation for the detail with which he constructs his compositions.
I came into the concert already vulnerable emotionally: my girlfriend was getting ready to leave for study abroad, my parents’ divorce was still raw, and I was coming up on my last semester at Durham Tech. The time was right for a cascade of emotions to overwhelm my nervous system. When this song dropped in the arena, I felt the weight of the world crashing down around me, yet there’s something comforting about the sample from Carol Anderson that plays throughout:
Tomorrow’s not a promise, but I’ll wait for you…
Exactly who is waiting is for you to decide.
Overcome - The Avalanches
I would love to know how long ago this song, debuting on We Will Always Love You last December, was planned because it so beautifully encapsulates the emotionally volatile moment in which it was released, I have to believe it was birthed out of the pain and suffering 2020 inflicted on all of us. The Avalanches flipped the sample, “Overcome” by D.J. Rogers, from a down tempo ballad into an upbeat gospel jam that just washes over you and gives you strength. It’s the kinda of song I imagine my Oma really enjoying, which is saying something, because I don’t think our respective catalogs have a lot of overlap.
How Deep Is Your Love? - The Rapture
I can’t tell how on the nose this is supposed to be, but with a band name like The Rapture, and an album called In the Grace of Your Love, we’re led to infer a few things. There’s no mention of God or Jesus, but it’s the kind of song you might imagine your slightly alt- friend playing for you at Young Life overnight camp. The song is a bit gospel (the choir-like hook with the repetitive clapping on beat 2 and 4) with disco flair that livens up the spirit.
Midnight In A Perfect World - DJ Shadow
For all you writers out there, you know how difficult it is to complete a thought when other words are flooding the zone. This is why that lo-fi/chill/studying YouTube stream got so freakin’ popular.
Instrumental hip-hop is… instrumental to the fabric of the culture, and its practitioners, as well as their contributions to the art, are severely underrated and undervalued. It makes for a stimulating undercurrent, or soundtrack, to many situations: work, driving, yoga, or intimacy.
“Midnight In A Perfect World” is widely considered the quintessential instrumental cut. It’s like what ”The Message” is for rappers. All instrumental work leads back to Endtroducing. Unlike the first three songs on this list, Midnight is less jolting and more atmospheric, leaving space to fill with your own narrative. In fact, it’s the perfect song to backdrop a lonely walk under the stairs contemplating life’s great questions.
Doomsday - MF DOOM
The birth of MF DOOM, like all super villains, stemmed from significant tragedy. In his case, the death of his brother DJ Subroc, and the cruel fragility of being a rapper in the vampiric music business.
Six years after his brother’s untimely death, the artist formerly known as Zev Love X was resurrected as MF DOOM, debuting with Operation: Doomsday. The album opens (after a brief skit) with the song “Doomsday”, a love letter to Subroc.
On Doomsday // Ever since the womb 'til I'm back where my brother went, that's what my tomb'll say // Right above my government, Dumile // Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?
After DOOM passed away at the end of last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this precious expression of love and brotherhood had finally come to pass.
There’s another line from the album, on the song “?”, that further illustrates DOOM’s foresight:
I keep a flick a' you with the machete sword in ya hand // Everything is going according to plan, man
He lived his whole life in service of this mission to take revenge on a music industry that had scared him to the point where he couldn’t even show his face. There is something divine about having the discipline to commit to a lifelong mission so earnestly.
The world is better for having DOOM as long as we did.
Welcome to the Show - J Dilla
Sadly, J Dilla also met an early demise from his battle with lupus. If instrumental hip-hop started with DJ Shadow, it was perfected by J Dilla.
I am contractually obligated to write about this story once a year, so if you’ve heard it before, I don’t know what to tell you. Hang in there.
The last song on Donuts, Dilla’s last album, which was released 3 days before his death, is called “Welcome to the Show.” Even though it’s the last song on the album, technically, it’s labeled as the intro, and the song labeled “Outro” is the first song on the album. They make a loop, or a “donut” if you will; two things Dilla was quite fond of.
The vocal loop for “Welcome to the Show” comes from 70s Canadian pop rock group Motherlode, titled “When I Die.”
When I die, I hope to be, the kinda man that you thought I could be…
Dilla was on his death bed when this album dropped. This sample choice was no accident. It makes you wonder, “what would I do if I knew Death was on my doorstep?” Dilla chose to give us one last example of how brilliant a composer he was. He was absolutely the kinda man we knew he could be, and much more.
Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
I mean… Isn’t it obvious?
Thieves in the Night - Black Star
Mos Def provides one of the best verses in hip-hop history on the back half of “Thieves in the Night.” It illustrates the Black experience in America so vividly, and with that, makes us question what our duty is to our spiritual brothers and sisters. I recommend reading the entire lyric sheet, Mos Def’s verse in particular, but for this exercise, I’ll leave you with the closing four bars:
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave // But everyday, next man meet with the grave // I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy // I'm trying to live life in the sight of God's memory, like that, y'all
Acid Raindrops - People Under The Stairs
Songs about weed are a dime a dozen. Or maybe it’s a dime for $20? Depends on where you live. Most of the songs are just about the act of getting high the way a high school kid taking his first puff would re-tell the story to his buddies. “Bro, like, we got SO high last night. I don’t even remember what we did… Cheeseburgers.”
However, the medicinal benefits of marijuana have also been well-documented by scientists, Smokey, and rappers alike. I’m not here to sell you on the practice, but if you were on the fence, a song like “Acid Raindrops” might convince you that smoking marijuana could be the spiritual enlightenment you’ve been searching for.
When the stress burns my brain just like acid raindrops // Mary Jane is the only thing that makes the pain stop // I let the music take over my soul, body and mind // So kick back, relax one time and you will find
Smiley Faces - Gnarls Barkley
Smiley Faces is the Gnarls Barkley equivalent of Hakuna Matata.
Your worries and fears become your friends // And they end up smiling again
Whenever I think about this line, I imagine some version of the Pixar movie Inside Out where my emotions are all around me in some fever dream and even Crazy, Scary, and Angry are able to put aside their grievances and just dance around blissfully.
The pursuit of happiness comes at a premium. To truly be happy seems like one of the pillars of human existence, but it’s not an easy state of being to maintain. Fortunately, when the time comes and I need a boost of joyous adrenaline, I can count on this song to put a giant grin on my face.
SNDTRK is a series ranging from music that has inspired me, invigorated me, or just songs that bump including fresh cuts and old classics. In doing this series, I want to share the connections I have to music and in turn, make a connection to you.