I have been working for MTV Networks for fifteen years and have written several books about rock ’n’ roll. I never expected to find the church trampling in my vineyard.

When word came that the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano had published a list of the ten best pop albums of all time, I was tempted to retaliate by issuing a couple of encyclicals.

The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac: the Holy See shares the taste of American adult-rock radio programmers. My first reaction was, “Where’s Astral Weeks? Where’s Highway 61 Revisited? Where are the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos?”

The ways of the magisterium are often hard for the layman to interpret. I could find no clue in Aquinas, no key in Augustine, no mention at all of rock ’n’ roll in The Catholic’s Ready Answer. If I was going to figure out why Rome rated Rumours above Born to Run, I was going to have to adopt the techniques of the greatest dogma detective in all of Christendom. To decode the Vatican Top Ten, I would have to train myself to think like Dan Brown.

It took a couple of hours to read through Mr. Brown’s oeuvre, but once I got into the swing of it I was seeing menacing albinos behind every secret panel. That’s when it hit me: This is not a list of the best albums. This is a crafty new way to enumerate the Ten Commandments!

Look at the first album on the papal chart: Revolver, by the Beatles. Remember the controversy around the release of that record in 1966? John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and all hell broke loose. How’s that for a reminder not to take the Lord’s name in vain?

Fundamentalists were up in arms about the living dead in the "Thriller" video. Michael Jackson apologized and said he would never promote belief in black magic. In other words, no worship of false gods!

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is pretty much a concept album about adultery and coveting your neighbor’s (or bandmate’s) wife. Rumours is a twofer.

Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly is filled with images of Cold War–era violence. One song begins, “It’s murder out in the street.” Moral: Thou shalt not kill.

On Supernatural, a new generation of young stars teamed up with elder statesman Carlos Santana. In other words, they honored their musical father.

Oasis made the list with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, a wonderful album that owed an awful lot to the Beatles. Would it be unfair to remind Noel Gallagher, “Thou shalt not steal”?

The Vatican bestowed some sanctifying grace on Graceland, Paul Simon’s masterpiece, which helped the West recognize the evils of apartheid. South Africans like Nelson Mandela were victims of government agents bearing false witness against their neighbors.

The Dark Side of the Moon was infused with the remorse the remaining members of Pink Floyd felt over kicking out the group’s original leader, Syd Barrett. The Decalogue tells us, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” Roger Waters and David Gilmour hijacked their buddy’s band. No wonder they felt guilty.

You don’t hear a lot of rock ’n’ roll songs about keeping holy the Sabbath, which is why U2 hit it so big with “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” They are on the list with Achtung Baby, the centerpiece of which is “Until the End of the World,” a song about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. To leave U2 off the Vatican list would have been at least a venial sin.

The one album on the Vatican Top Ten that really stumped me was If I Could Only Remember My Name, the trippy 1971 solo record by David Crosby. This is a hippie jam, with members of CSNY, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead drifting in and out of the picture. There are vague suggestions of reincarnation and government conspiracy, but mostly it’s a floating stoner session with lyrics about love, love, love. It seemed to me that only thing this kind of music had in common with the church was that they both used a lot of incense.

But wait: What did Jesus say when he was asked to rank the Commandments in order of importance? “The greatest of these is love.” The bards of Woodstock could not have said it better. The wisdom of the Vatican’s Top Ten was made clear. The list may not be infallible, but it is a revelation.

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 

Bill Flanagan is editorial director of MTV Networks. His latest book is Evening's Empire (Simon & Schuster).

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