Everybody seems to be talking politics these days.
So why is it, then, that nobody seems to be singing about them? Pop musicians, the people who have traditional offered up songs of commentary and criticism about the times in which we live, have clearly dropped the ball during this important election year.
Thus, in lieu of having a new batch of socially conscious anthems in 2008, we've decided to borrow from years past with a look at the 25 greatest political/protest songs of all time.
In compiling this list, we looked at several factors — the least significant of which, we should point out, was whether we agreed with the commentary. More important were a song's original impact on its audience and whether the tune is still worth listening to today.
Also, we didn't want to come up with a list of, say, 25 Bob Dylan tunes. Thus, we made the important restriction that each artist could appear only once on our tally.
25. "Clampdown," The Clash (1979): The band's third album, "London Calling," was filled with great protest anthems, including the famous title track. The most affecting in the bunch was "Clampdown," a tune that songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones seemed to purposely leave open to interpretation. Some claimed the song addressed the neo-Nazi movement, while others cited the villain as capitalism run amok. What made the song truly special, however, was how well it worked as commentary on so many levels.
24. "Okie From Muskogee," Merle Haggard (1969): The Hag's original goal with this tribute to Muskogee, "a place where even squares can have a ball," was to create a humorous satire. Yet it was quickly adopted by millions of listeners as a rebuttal to the hippie movement. These days, however, the song is frequently enjoyed as Merle first intended, and it goes over equally well in San Antonio and San Francisco.
23. "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," John Prine (1971): On his eponymous first album, the brilliant songwriter offered up a hilarious yet cutting song about the dangers of blind patriotism. The song is full of funny bits, but Prine doesn't mince his words when it comes to the situation in Vietnam: "Now Jesus don't like Killin'/No matter what the reasons for/And your flag decal won't get you into Heaven anymore."
22. "Ignoreland," R.E.M. (1992): The Georgia band made a tuneful case that its homeboy Jimmy Carter was a pretty fine president as vocalist Michael Stipe slammed the state of affairs under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The song struck a nerve with listeners and "Ignoreland," despite not being released as a single, became a hit song on the charts.
21. "Get Up, Stand Up," Bob Marley (1973): A religious protest song by nature, "Get Up, Stand Up" railed against mainstream Christianity and implored Rastafarians to uphold their own beliefs. That direct and specific message seems to have been lost on most ears, which heard the song simply as an anthem to "stand up for your rights." Marley might not have approved of that broader interpretation, but we're more than OK with it. Other worthy Marley contenders considered for this list included "Redemption Song" and "Buffalo Soldier."
20. "Volunteers," Jefferson Airplane (1969): The Bay Area was the epicenter for so many different political and social movements in the late '60s. It was also, somewhat arguably, the focal point of the musical universe during that period. Those two factors combined, with striking results, on the title track to the Airplane's sixth album. The storyline was fairly simple, detailing a changing of the guard between generations, but it was told with complete and absolute conviction.
19. "Revolution," the Beatles (1968): The Fab Four's first truly overt political anthem, originally released as the B-side on "Hey Jude," was a carefully constructed cry for change through peaceful measures, a theme that lyricist John Lennon would further mine with 1969's "Give Peace a Chance." The song still sounds revolutionary today, despite its dubious distinction as being the first Beatles cut to be used in an advertising campaign.
18. "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," James Brown (1968): Perhaps the most empowering anthem on this list, "Say It Loud" was a cry for self-reliance, not aggressive militant action, in the black community. The song is tremendously funky, thanks in large part to a horn section that included trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker, but its real greatness comes from such unforgettable lyrics as "We'd rather die on our feet/Than be livin' on our knees."
17. "Sunday Bloody Sunday," U2 (1983): The Irish rock band's third studio album, "War," opens with this dramatic observation of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Vocalist Bono delivers an amazing amount of urgency in his lyrics, something that is reinforced by the Edge's razor-sharp guitar and the combative rhythm work from drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton.
16. "War," Edwin Starr (1970): One year after the Temptations originally recorded the tune, in a decidedly less-aggressive manner, "War" received its definitive rendering by Starr. The version became a No. 1 hit, Starr's signature song and, most significantly, an iconic anti-war anthem. Fifteen years later, a live recording of "War," its message still as relevant as ever, became a top 10 smash for Bruce Springsteen.
15. "The 'Fish' Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," Country Joe and Fish (1967): Berkeley's Country Joe McDonald secured his place in pop-music history with this clever sing-along satire targeted at the Vietnam War. The best known performance of this song occurred at Woodstock, where the "Cheer" was famously altered from "Fish" to spell out, well, with a coupel of hundred-thousand singing along, it was more like a nuclear F-bomb.
14. "Fight the Power," Public Enemy (1989): Boasting "rhythm designed to bounce" and "rhymes designed to fill your mind," "Fight the Power" remains one of the greatest and most thought-provoking hip-hop songs of all time. Although militant in sound, the track promoted education and speaking out as the best offensive weapons ("What we need is awareness/We can't get careless," and "Our freedom of speech is freedom or death"). The song was featured prominently in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and made its debut on the film's soundtrack.
13. "Masters of War," Bob Dylan (1963): Dylan was the voice of his generation, especially when he was singing about social issues and political unrest in the '60s. Several of his songs, including "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind," were deeply considered in making this list. Yet, "Masters" was Dylan's best political anthem — a brutal, vivid damnation of the warmongers that profit from the death toll.
12. "Rain on the Scarecrow," John Mellencamp (1985): Mellencamp came to fame singing about the small-town American Dream. But with "Rain on the Scarecrow," he addressed a nightmare, the plight of the American farmer, and delivered one of the most convincing protest songs of the past 25 years.
11. "Think," Aretha Franklin (1968): The song was viewed as a powerful feminist anthem, but its message rang true to all. Indeed, Franklin said more in this tune by repeating one single word, "Freedom," than most artists do in entire careers. Aretha's version of Otis Redding's "Respect" could've also made this list.
10. "Ohio," Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970): Horrified by the shootings at Kent State in May 1970, Neil Young quickly wrote a reactionary piece and called up his three pals — Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby — to record it. The resulting anthem was undeniably brave — taking President Richard Nixon to task for the killings — and it solidified Young's place next to Bob Dylan as one of the top political troubadours of the generation. The lyrics still carry weight today, and the song has been revisited by such modern acts as the Dandy Warhols and Rise Against.
9. "Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell (1970): The deceptively sweet "Big Yellow Taxi" was the rare environmental anthem that managed to appeal to both lumberjacks and tree-huggers. Chrissie Hynde, of the Pretenders, would revisit the topic on 1982's "My City Was Gone," which was another strong contender for this list.
8. "Anarchy in the UK," Sex Pistols (1976): One of true musical shots heard 'round the world, the Sex Pistols' first single was an angry, belligerent and totally awesome shout-out to solving the world's problems through anything but peace, love and understanding. Thirty-two years later, "Anarchy in the U.K." still stands as the definitive punk-rock song, a genre that has produced so many great political anthems (Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia," Black Flag's "Rise Above").
7. "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969): John Fogerty spoke for the common man — the Regular Joe that was forced to become GI Joe during the Vietnam War draft — with this vicious commentary about the privileged few. The song questions the true price of patriotism and why it is that those with the most — the senators' and millionaires' sons "born silver spoon in hand" — often give the least.
6. "Killing in the Name," Rage Against the Machine (1992): As pure an adrenaline rush as anything ever produced in the hard rock/metal realm, "Killing in the Name" stands as the Godzilla of modern political anthems. Its message has been wrongly interpreted more often than not, as far too many fans took the song's signature chant, "(Expletive) you, I won't do what you tell me," as a free pass to act without regard for others. True listeners, however, realized that the song was an urgent wake-up call addressed to an overly content populace that blindly refused to question the state of world affairs.
5. "This Land Is Your Land," Woody Guthrie (1951): Guthrie reportedly didn't think much of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," so he wrote a response to it, which he originally titled "God Blessed America for Me." He recorded the now-familiar version in 1944, although it wasn't released until seven years later, and it would become the blueprint for the modern political folk song. Each verse is mesmerizing and, taken collectively, they form what Bruce Springsteen once rightfully called "one of the most beautiful songs ever written."
4. "Star Spangled Banner," Jimi Hendrix, performed at Woodstock (1969): At Woodstock, Hendrix did far more than just perform the national anthem — he turned the song into a searing commentary about the Vietnam War, using his otherworldly talents on the guitar to mimic the sounds of planes, explosions and screams. More significantly, he struck a claim that the song belonged as much to his generation as it did to the old guard.
3. "For What It's Worth," Buffalo Springfield (1967): Few people know this song by name, probably because the title appears nowhere in the lyrics, but everybody seems to recognize the chorus: "I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound / Everybody look what's going down." Stephen Stills reportedly wrote the song about the problems brewing between law enforcement and clubgoers in Hollywood, but it would quickly transcend that specific and become a versatile anthem, suitable in most cases of social unrest.
2. "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye (1971): Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. wasn't wrong often, at least on a professional basis, but he missed the mark completely when he argued that "What's Going On" would flop as a single. The somber, introspective song, a heartfelt meditation on social troubles like black-on-black violence, was perfect for its time and it raced up the charts. These days, "What's Going On" is widely considered to be one of the greatest pop songs, of any type, ever recorded.
1. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday (1939): A work of awe-inspiring beauty and absolute horror, "Strange Fruit" stands as the greatest political/protest song of all time. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a high school instructor in the Bronx, about the 1930 lynching of two black men in Indiana. The true greatness of the song, ranking even beyond Holiday's exquisite delivery, is the contrasting imagery between the pastoral setting ("Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh") and the act of violence ("Then the sudden smell of burning flesh").
What are your favorites, ONTD? What's missing? Personally, I'm wondering where "A Change Is Gonna Come" is. >:O