Whether they be songs about angels or demons, Heaven or Hell, the theme of the afterlife has inspired countless musicians of varying genres and has embedded itself into the lyrics of many popular hits. Though their styles may be different, artists show that our collective questions and musings about the afterlife provide us with a common thread across humanity. Here are some of the songs that best represent this wide range of emotions that many people have about what lies beyond.
“Love & the First Law of Thermodynamics” by Cloud Cult
Stories of the afterlife are important to us whether we are religious or scientific. This gorgeous instrumental is one of several songs written by Craig Minowa about the loss of his infant son Kaidin to crib death. Based on the First Law of Thermodynamics—that energy cannot be destroyed—he believes that he will absolutely see this child he loves again.
“Death and All of his Friends” by Coldplay
This classic stadium anthem from one of the world’s biggest bands takes us on a musical journey as it wrestles with the fact that death is inevitable—and that many of our human practices like revenge lead us inexorably to that conclusion.
“And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat & Tears
Is there a Heaven? A Hell? The afterlife is mysterious. Only dying, as David Clayton Thomas sings here, will tell us what will happen to us. But one of the most comforting stories about death is that whatever happens to us, life goes on (unless it’s the end of the world—which is another story). A person dies, a baby is born.
“A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard” by Jeremy Messersmith
From The Reluctant Graveyard, a concept album by the Minneapolis indie rocker, a song that explores what death is, what might follow it, and how we use metaphors of death and rebirth to think about our everyday lives.
“Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance
What is it like to die? From another concept album, The Black Parade, this song captures the experience of death from the standpoint of the album’s central character, The Patient, who is carried off by the Black Parade.
“Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
Beautiful and haunting as any song about death could be, this song is a staple on television and in films. We want to believe that those we love are comforted in the arms of the angels, and McLachlan’s words could be our own. In fact, this song has been a staple in times of national tragedy, helping us make meaning of events that otherwise would seem overwhelming.
“I Can’t Outrun You” by Thompson Square
A popular story of the afterlife is that some human souls hang about because of unfinished business. The idea of haunting—and that the past can’t be easily escaped—is captured in songs like this one by the musical couple Thompson Square—“it’s like your ghost is chasing me.”
“All You Zombies” by The Hooters
Another omnipresent afterlife story in our culture is that of zombies—the walking dead. In this song by the mid-80s rockers The Hooters, the chorus asks who the zombies are, and suggests, as some of our pop culture narratives do, that there’s little difference between the walking dead—and the living.
“Cheek to Cheek” by Fred Astaire
We use Heaven as a way of expressing how transcendent earthly experiences feel. Here, Fred sings about how dancing cheek to cheek feels like Heaven, but we make this comparison over and over again in poetry and popular song, including several great examples in this playlist.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
One of our primary stories about Heaven is that it is a place where we will be reunited with those we have loved and lost. Here we have such a reunion—Johnny Cash sings lead, and the backing choir includes others of the dear departed: June Carter Cash, John Denver, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs.
“Heaven Is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle
Maybe nothing in life is more perfect than an infectious pop song—especially a pop song about finding Heaven on earth. If we’re incapable of accurately describing the world to come, we certainly feel like we can recognize a taste of Heaven when we find it—and that’s what Carlisle does for us here.
“Too Marvelous for Words” by Ella Fitzgerald
One of the literary conventions in writing about the afterlife is that Heaven can’t be described in earthly words—it is, quite literally, too marvelous for words. Here, Ella Fitzgerald sings about the difficulty we have in conveying the ineffable when all we have are words (and one of the world’s most marvelous voices).
“Coming Home” by Diddy—Dirty Money & Skylar Gray
Another of the central appeals of the myth of Heaven is that someday we will find the place we belong, and this track captures the emotional pull of being reunited with those we have lost and, as well as, in the words of TS Eliot, arriving at the place where we began and knowing it for the first time.
“Angel” by Jack Johnson
It’s a time-honored trope of popular music that we compare those we love to angels—only those heavenly creatures could bring us this kind of happiness, be so beautiful. Johnson’s sweet lilting song is a fine example of how such songs work.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” by Aretha Franklin
In the Bible, angels are messengers of earthshaking news, none more earthshaking than the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Here the Queen of Soul offers a contemporary gospel version of the hymn about the angels singing in the heavens at the Christ Child’s birth.
“My Little Demon” by Fleetwood Mac
One of the questions we’re attempting to answer when we tell stories about devils and demons is where human evil comes from. Is it intrinsic to our condition, or are we simply in the middle of a cosmic battle between good and evil? Are demons outside of us—or are they our own worst natures?
“Highway to Hell” by AC-DC
For some bad boys (and girls), the idea of hanging out with the worst the cosmos has to offer shows their street cred. (See also Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil.”) “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” John Milton has Satan say, and so sings AC-DC’s Bon Scott.
“Wise Up” by Aimee Mann
The Purgatory myth has at its center human self-improvement. How do we become better persons? We learn to do better. To be better. Aimee Mann’s song—best known as the centerpiece of P.T. Anderson’s movie Magnolia, about a dozen tortured souls who need to do better—is a perfect statement of one of our most important human stories.
“Wash Away” by Joe Purdy
At the heart many of our stories of the afterlife is the hope that someday, somewhere, we will reach a better place, a place where the hurt and heartache have washed away, and we have been redeemed—whatever that may mean. Featured in an early episode of that great purgatorial television drama Lost, Joe Purdy’s song is a gentle and beautiful reminder of that hope.
Check out Greg Garrett’s full playlist below.