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Jesus and music are my favorite topics of conversation. But when I’m talking with people outside the church, I usually can’t talk about the music of Michael W. Smith.

Here’s a list of must-hear mainstream albums from the last 50 years that have been formational for generations of people both inside and outside the church. Critically and commercially successful, they’re great for striking up a conversation with people from all walks of life.

  1. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963. This seminal folk album captures the cultural unrest and spiritual restlessness a-brewing in the 1960s. (Sony)
  2. Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, 1966. Lush, summery pop sounds belie Pet Sounds’ autumnal lyrics. Coming-of-age stories contrast with beautiful music to capture the beauty and pain of life as a teen (or anyone). (Capitol)
  3. Marvin Gaye, What's Goin’ On, 1971. Gaye’s R&B album sings of war, racial prejudice, and ecology, without ever sounding preachy. (Motown)
  4. Bob Marley, Exodus, 1977. Marley was the ambassador of reggae, which is now appreciated worldwide. No album captures Marley’s pacifism, activism, spirituality, and love like Exodus. (Tuff Gong)
  5. The Clash, London Calling, 1979. Punk has evolved musically since this album, but anti-establishment themes remain. While most Christians stayed silent about materialism and corporate greed, the Clash didn’t. (Epic)
  6. Paul Simon, Graceland, 1986. This pop/world music masterpiece made apartheid look foolish. Collaborations between all parties involved were historical, beautiful, and gave us a little taste of heaven: unity in diversity. (Sony)
  7. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman, 1988. It makes sense that an African-American female singer-songwriter would craft the quintessential album about injustice. The sound is timeless; unfortunately, so are the issues. (Elektra)
  8. R.E.M., Automatic for the People, 1992. The alternative and grunge movements of the early 1990s took a little pause from self-destruction to listen to this album about mortality, struggle, and hope. (Warner Bros)
  9. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998. Hip-hop still misses Ms. Hill. There has never been a singer/rapper so talented and with so much to say about relationships between people and God. (Sony)
  10. Arcade Fire, Funeral, 2004. Indie rock was still in its early stages of commercial success when Arcade Fire recorded this album about isolation, loss, and life amid grief. Several band members lost family members and two got married during the time they were recording. (Merge)

Of course, there are dozens of great albums that didn’t make this cut. Which albums do you think deserve to be here? Make your own suggestions below!

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