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Songs of Atonement

As pop song themes go, atonement is right up there with the biggies: sex, puppy love, devil worship. Songs of penance are especially ubiquitous in American popular music, and small wonder. So much American pop flows out straight out of the church – blues plaints, honky tonk rave-ups, and soul ballads are often little more than secularized sinners' confessions, ne'er-do-wells begging their women to let them please come home while an angry Old Testament God glares down from on high.

Here then are 20 quasi-secular, mostly crypto-Christian pleas for forgiveness and pledges of reform – a perfect soundtrack for a nice Jewish boy or girl's Yom Kippur reckoning. There are two bona fide gospel songs, and one famous Jewish one. But even the secular love songs point toward a larger cosmic soul-cleansing: shut your eyes, maybe don't eat for a day, and Dean Martin's "Pardon (Perdoname)," Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," and "Kol Nidre" all start sounding like the same song. It's hard to imagine a more succinct vow for the Day of Atonement than Usher's in his 2004 hit "Confessions." "Today," he sings, "is the day that I end all the lying and the playing and the bullshit."

[Note: you can download each song via iTunes. — ed.]

1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Forgive Me Lord and Try Me One More Time"

The great gospel singer-guitarist sings a love song to God, accompanying herself with guitar licks that Chuck Berry would make famous a decade later.

2. Lucinda Williams, "Get Right with God"

Williams promises to clean up her act, as hellfire nips at her heels: "I would burn the soles of my feet/Burn the palms of both my hands/If I could learn and be complete/If I could walk righteously again."

3. Solomon Burke, "Don't Give Up On Me"

The most touching song on the list, belted over a stately Memphis soul ballad arrangement by Philadelphia's greatest black chazzan.

4. Usher, "Confessions"

Usher's got a mistress. He bought her "a crib and a ride." He squires her around malls in Los Angeles while his girlfriend is at home in Atlanta. And he hates himself for it. A playa's confession, tinged with violent self-loathing: "I'm mad enough to punch me in my face."

5. Nick Lowe, "A Better Man"

An easygoing country & western ballad with ersatz-mariachi horns tooting gently in the background. But behind the nonchalance there is torment: "I'm in a prison built by my own hands/I pray at last I've found salvation/You make me want to be a better man."

6. Mad Professor, "Atonement Dub"

Psychedelic dub, with a violin lurching beautifully amid the percussion clatter. Up ahead, through the billowing ganja smoke, is that the face of a forgiving God?

7. Dean Martin, "Pardon (Perdoname)"

The melody is lovely, the strings weep and sigh, and silken-voiced Dino — one of history's biggest and most irresistible cads – almost sounds sincere.

8. Aventura, "I'm Sorry"

Girl, the Bronx-based kings of hip-hop-bachata are really, really sorry. In two languages. "I know I played you/I know I messed up/That was retarded/Es la veridad."

9. The Platters, "I'm Sorry" (1957)

In 1957, few wronged lovers could resist this lush appeal for one more chance. Fantastic vocal by lead Platter Cornell Gunter.

10. Brenda Lee, "I'm Sorry" (1960)

The young heartbreakers are the worst. One of the all-time great teenybopper anthems, sung with torchy exuberance by 14-year-old Brenda Lee. There's something almost evil about Lee's drawling, spoken-word bridge. Stay away from that minx!

1. Marshall Crenshaw, "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)" (1988)

A great meta-pseudo-apology, sung with an audible smirk by power-pop hero Marshall Crenshaw. 12. Josephine Baker, "(What Can I Say) After I Say I'm Sorry"

Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dean Martin all had hits with this roaring 20s anthem. But Jospehine Baker's sprightly recording might have captured the spirit best: one part regret to three parts regret-fatigue. Will you just accept my apology already?

13. Chicago, "Hard To Say I'm Sorry"

Maybe you made out to it at the 8th grade dance. You probably think it's one of the cheesiest songs ever recorded. By just try to resist its heart-tugging power of the money shot moment in the second chorus (2:50): "After all that we've been through/I will make it up to you/I promise to."

14. Akon, "Sorry, Blame It On Me"

Akon apologizes for offenses past, present, and – taking no chances – future. "As life goes on I'm starting to learn more and more about responsibility. And I realize that everything I do is affecting the people around me. So I want to take this time out to apologize for things that I've done – and things that haven't occurred yet."

15. Mickey Gilley, "I'll Make It All Up To You"

No genre s more atonement-obsessed than country. This honky-tonk rumbler, written by the great Charlie Rich, is a classic example of the form.

16. The Pretenders, "When I Change My Life" (Demo)

A brooding, guitar-heavy demo version of a song from The Pretender's 1987 Get Close album. "When I change my life/There'll be no more disgrace/The deeds of my past will be erased."

17. LL Cool J, "Love U Better"

"I'm gon' love you better, my mentality changed/From this day forward, I'll never be the same/I'm-a rub your lower back, share my dreams/I love you, let me show you what I mean."

18. Little Jimmy Scott, "Please Forgive Me"

Angel-voiced androgyne Jimmy Scott sings a torch song apology for the ages.

19. Cher, "If I Could Turn Back Time"

Try to forget the video – the one where Cher straddles a Navy battleship's cannon in a thong and garters– and just concentrate on the words. It's a prayer, people.

20. Johnny Mathis, "Kol Nidre"

The most beautiful of all Jewish sacred melodies, sung in bravura pop-operatic fashion. With accompaniment by forty-five full string orchestras.

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