Iconic politically charged songs from 1950 to now
Iconic politically charged songs from 1950 to now
History has seen musicians communicate political messages through their songwriting time and time again. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Joni Mitchell are just a few of the greats who churned out poignant anthems commenting on events of their time or a bygone era.
Considering the onslaught of protests in today’s divisive political climate, Stacker has compiled a list of iconic political songs from 1950 to 2018—one for each year. Not all popular political songs involve protesting the powers that be, with our list including tunes that drum up support for the military, tap into nationalist sentiments, or touch on subtle but important events throughout U.S. history.
1950: Jimmie Osborne, “God, Please Protect America”
Osborne’s 1950 country hit combines American nationalism with prayer. The song made such positive waves that children in Ohio sang bits and pieces of it as they impersonated soldiers at recess, according to Ian Tribe’s article “Purple Hearts, Heartbreak Ridge and Korean Mud.” (p. 129) Charlie Moore and Bill Napier re-recorded the song in 1964, changing the lyrics to reflect the the Vietnam War.
1951: Gene Autry, “Old Soldiers Never Die”
Autry wrote this song in response to president Truman’s removal of General Douglas MacArthur from command during the Korean War. MacArthur’s words in a congressional address, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” inspired Autry to write the song, as per Ian Tribe’s piece in Country Music Goes to War. (p. 130) Autry recorded the song the day after MacArthur’s address, and it appeared on the country music charts several weeks later.
1952: Carl Sauceman and the Green Valley Boys, “God’s Secret Weapon”
Another country/bluegrass song about support for American soldiers in combination with prayer comes from Carl Sauceman. The lyric "the army of the Lord would never fail" is one example of Sauceman’s reliance on the power of faith to convey his desire for the troops to come home safely. He himself served in the Navy for a short period toward the end of WWII.
1953: Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, “A Dear John Letter”
Originally written by Billy Barton, Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley, Shepard and Husky sent this song to the top of the Billboard charts. Not surprisingly, the song takes the concept of a Dear John Letter and relates it to the Korean War. It tells the story of a young lady who breaks up with her boyfriend toward the end of his tour, and to top it all off, she plans to marry his brother.
1954: Bill Haley and the Comets, “Thirteen Women and Only One Man in Town”
While this tune didn’t get as much play as its A-side, “Rock Around the Clock,” it certainly made some interesting commentary on the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb that occurred in 1952, less than two years before the song’s release. Considering the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union at the time, Haley anticipated another draft for American men through this relatively jazzy, downtempo number.
1955: Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
This signature song rides on a train-like rhythm, and also embodies the typical folk and country style of prison songs. Due to the song’s subject matter and its melding of styles, the public began to view Cash as somewhat of a deviant in the world of country music. According to Rolling Stone, Cash started performing the song to inmates in prisons in the late ‘50s. A little over a decade after the song’s release, he recorded a live version at Folsom State Prison, which climbed to the top of the country music charts in 1968.
1956: Harry Belafonte, “Day-O”
Belafonte performed perhaps the best-known version of this Jamaican folk song, which became a regular in his repertoire. It is widely thought that Jamaican banana workers originally sung the song as they worked nights loading bananas onto ships. The call and response chorus draws on the calypso genre whose origins are tied to the early American slave trade. . The song is thought to have come into existence in the late 19th or early 20th century, when bananas were Jamaica’s biggest export. Many other artists recorded versions of the song, including Sarah Vaughan and The Tarriers. Belafonte, who spent a portion of his childhood in the Jamaican mountain village of Aboukir, would go on to play a major role in the civil rights movement.
1957: Oscar Brand, “Around Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”
This sprightly folk tune tells the story of a young woman sporting a token from her husband or boyfriend while he served in the army, most likely during the Vietnam War. Historically, soldiers who served in the Civil War wore yellow handkerchiefs around their necks, and their wives wore yellow ribbons in kind.
1958: Bobby Bare, “The All American Boy”
Elvis Presley’s success as an artist and his eventual draft into the army lies at the heart of this tune, according to Billy Poore’s book Rockabilly: A Forty-Year Journey. While Bobby Bare sang the song, it was written by Bill Parsons and Orville Lunsford. Bare himself served in the Army while the song was gaining traction in America. It was such a hit among American teenagers that it stayed on the Billboard chart for 16 weeks.
1959: Johnny Horton (written by Jimmy Driftwood), “The Battle of New Orleans”
Jimmy Driftwood initially wrote this tune in 1936 to help his students distinguish between the events of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. The Battle of New Orleans was the last major battle of the former of the two wars. The song became popular, but radio stations refused to play it because of its use of the words “hell” and “damn.” When Johnny Horton asked if he could record a version of the song, Driftwood gave the OK and changed the lyrics to make it appropriate for radioplay. Horton’s version topped the Country Singles charts for over two months.
1960 : Sam Cooke, “Chain Gang”
The inspiration for this chart-topper comes from Cooke’s experience haphazardly running into a chain-gang of prisoners on a highway while on tour. At the time, many American prisoners were employed to build public highways for the sake of cheap labor. The song did quite well on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Sides charts. Though the tune is upbeat, Cooke did a great job of conveying the pain of the prisoners as they worked, almost as if they themselves were singing.
1961: The Kingston Trio (written by Pete Seeger), “Where Have all the Flowers Gone”
Pete Seeger certainly wrote a lot of politically-charged songs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and first wrote this one in ‘55. The Kingston Trio recorded their own version in 1961, which made the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Seeger got the idea for the song on his way to a gig at Oberlin College, one of the few places that let him perform despite his communist associations in the era of McCarthyism. On the plane, he glanced at a notebook that contained lines from a Cossacks folk song referencing the abundance of men serving in the army.
1962: Peter Paul and Mary (written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays), “If I had a Hammer”
Although Seeger and Hays first wrote this tune in 1949 in support of the liberal political party the Progressive Movement, it climbed the charts when Peter Paul and Mary recorded it in 1962. The song won the trio a grammy for Best Folk Recording and Best Performance by a Vocal Group. “The Hammer Song,” as it was nicknamed, became iconic of the civil rights movement.
1963: Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is possibly one of the most famous political songs of the ‘60s. Dylan wrote the song shortly after hearing the New World Singers play a Civil War freedom song at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. It later became iconic of the civil rights and anti-war movements. When asked about the meaning of the song, Dylan stated in an interview with the magazine Sing Out! via NPR, “there ain’t much I can say about this song, except the answer is blowin’ in the wind. It ain’t no book or movie or TV show or discussion group, man. It’s in the wind.”
1964: Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
This civil rights anthem is largely considered one of the best songs of all time, and rightfully so. Part of Cooke’s inspiration came from his experience being denied a room at a whites-only Holiday Inn in Louisiana, according to a piece in NPR. Cooke kicked up a fuss, but the hotel personnel asked him and his group to leave. When they moved on to a different hotel, the cops were there waiting to arrest them. Cooke based this song partly on his own struggles as well as the larger picture of racism at the time.
1965: Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
McGuire arguably recorded the most well-known version of this P.F. Sloan original, who played guitar on McGuire’s version of the song. According to the LA Times, Sloan wrote the song to illustrate the troubled times America was facing, including racism, the use of nuclear weapons and disaffected youth. McGuire covered the song shortly after the start of the Vietnam War, so it continued to send a powerful message.
1966: Simon and Garfunkel, “7 O’clock News/Silent Night”
Simon and Garfunkel recorded this track on their record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. It consists of an overlay of sound combining the duo singing “Silent Night” in two-part harmony, and a replication of broadcast news stories from one particular date in 1966. Some of the news items include the congressional conflict over the civil rights bill, Martin Luther King Jr.’s confirmation of carrying out the Chicago Open Housing Movement and comedian Lenny Bruce’s fatal drug overdose.
1967: Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
Though Otis Redding originally released this funky song in 1965, Aretha Franklin sent it skyrocketing to success in 1967. Redding’s version was all about his desire to get respect from his girl when he gets home from work. Franklin, however, transformed it into an R&B-fueled demand for respect from men. Her remake is widely considered symbolic of both the women’s rights and the civil rights movements. According to author Mark Ribowsky via NPR, Redding wasn’t too keen on the fact that “Respect” essentially became Franklin’s song.
1968: The Beatles, “Revolution”
It’s hard not to think of this song when it comes to politically-infused hits of the ‘60s. The Beatles intended it to be an expression of anti-war in response to widespread Vietnam War protests, and other major protests at the time. According to Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head, (p. 227) the lyric “It’s gonna be alright” is inspired by Lennon’s experience with silent meditation in India. The line embodies his belief that God would ensure the well-being of humanity regardless of how political events unfolded.
1969: Elvis, “In the Ghetto”
This musical fight against poverty was written by Mac Davis, but Elvis’s rendition made it famous in 1969. The song paints a picture of the Chicago ghetto, where a baby is born to a mother who has more children than she can afford to care for. As the child grows up, he resorts to a life of crime as a result of his situation, and ultimately gets shot while attempting to steal a car. Before he dies, he has a son who is destined to live the same kind of life, the song implies. Many other artists covered the song as well, including Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Manson and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
1970: Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” (and “War” by Edwin Starr)
This gem from the album Ladies of the Canyon hinges on Mitchell’s sadness at the fact that the human race has destroyed the environment. In the LA Times article Both Sides, Later, Mitchell stated that she wrote the song on a trip to Hawaii. She woke up the morning after she arrived and looked out the window at picturesque green mountains on the horizon, only to look down at an expansive parking lot. The song became a hit in Hawaii because its citizens realized the land was being destroyed. Also that year, Edwin Starr dropped another potent political hit -- “War.”
1971: John Lennon, “Imagine,” (and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye)
Lennon cited works from Yoko Ono’s 1964 poetry book Grapefruit as part of the inspiration behind this song. An interview with David Sheff for Playboy magazine revealed that another part of the song’s inspiration comes from a Christian prayer book given to Lennon by African American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. Rolling Stone described the song as “22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in a purpose, to repair and change itself.” And who can forget to include Marvin Gaye’s eye-opening song “What’s Going On,” which hit record stores that same year.
1972: Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman”
Reddy wrote this empowering song with Ray Burton as part of her debut album I Don’t Know how to Love Him. Though she didn’t consider herself a songwriter, Reddy wanted to write a song that would encapsulate her frustration with the male-dominated music industry that often marginalized women. In an interview in The New York Times, she stated that she had been involved with the women’s movement for several months, but couldn’t think of any pop songs at the time that spoke to women’s strength, so she decided to write one of her own.
1973: Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, “Get Up Stand Up”
When Marley saw the poverty-stricken lives of the people of Haiti when he was there on a tour, he decided to call for action through song. All three of the Wailers re-recorded and re-released the song on their solo efforts, with different arrangements and variations of the third verse. Tosh released his own version on his 1977 record Equal Rights. Musicians have covered this song throughout many genres, including jazz and metal. It remains symbolic of civil rights to this day.
1974: Nick Lowe, “What’s so Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding"
This song from Lowe’s record The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz is a cheery-sounding cry for the need for compassion and peace, considering the Vietnam War had not yet ended when the song was released. Elvis Costello and the Attractions covered the song, which Lowe produced and released as a B-side to his single “American Squirm.” When Costello’s version of the song climbed the charts, it was added to his album Armed Forces.
1975: The Isley Brothers, “Fight the Power”
This funky two-part song was the first single from the Isley Brothers’ iconic album The Heat Is On. The song embodies a general hatred of figures of authority, a feeling that all of the group members shared. It was one of the band’s most popular tunes, and made it to number one on the R&B Singles chart. Years later, the hip-hop group Public Enemy channeled the spirit of “Fight the Power” in their song of the same title.
1976: Bob Marley and the Wailers, “War”
Bob Marley and the Wailers certainly wrote a lot of political songs in the ‘70s. For this song, Marley took some of the lyrics almost verbatim from a speech that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave to the United Nations, alternating them with his own lyrics. The entire album, Rastaman Vibration, was the first of Marley’s to reach the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart.
1977: The Ramones, “Commando”
Off the Ramones’ second record Leave Home, this short, call-and-response-like song lyrically lays down “the rules,” some of which include “the laws of Germany” and “don’t talk to Commies.” Avram Mednick theorizes that this song is meant to be something of a sequel to the band’s song “Blitzkrieg Bop” from their self-titled debut. It takes its name from the German war tactic blitzkrieg, meaning lightning war. Leave Home received critical acclaim, but reached only 148 on the Billboard 200 chart.
1978: The Stranglers, “Curfew”
This upbeat song from the Stranglers addresses a few controversial subjects, one of which deals with whether journalists can ever be truly subjective in their reporting, evidenced by the lyric “Grey becomes black and white.” The song also discusses the devolution of the U.K., in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were granted their own governments. And finally, the postwar divisive state of Germany comes into play toward the end of the song. The piece encompasses more than one time signature, which perhaps symbolizes the politics of Britain and Germany at the time.
1979: The Jam, “Little Boy Soldiers”
The Jam recorded this thematic song in multiple parts, similar to the style of other British bands of the time, like Yes or The Kinks. It belongs to the band’s fourth album Setting Sons, which, as per the book Mad Dogs and Englishness, is a partial concept album telling the story of childhood friends who grow apart politically when they reconvene after an undefined war. The album’s front cover shows a statue of three soldiers, most likely amid a backdrop of battle grounds. The back cover displays a bulldog sitting near a beach chair that sports the British Union Jack.
1980: Kate Bush, “Army Dreamers”
This track from Kate Bush’s record Never for Ever tells the story of a mother who mourns for her son who was killed while serving in the military. The song is a downtempo waltz with eerie background vocals, which help to express the sadness of the grieving mother, portrayed by Bush in the music video. She is dressed like a soldier, and sings of all the other careers and paths her fictional son could have taken instead of going to war.
1981: Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure”
There’s no doubt that this collaboration between David Bowie and members of Queen is a classic. When Bowie and the band went into the studio, they had no set plan other than to retool Roger Taylor’s demo "Feel Like It". Ultimately, they came up with this hit that lyrically expresses anger toward the social and economic troubles that arose under Margaret Thatcher. Though Bowie and Queen never performed the song together, Bowie wove it into his sets after Freddie Mercury passed away.
1982: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message”
“The Message” is the first of its genre to paint an accurate picture of inner-city life in America, Rolling Stone reports. Front man Flash, aka Joseph Saddler, grew up in the South Bronx during the height of ‘70s urban decay, which most likely laid the groundwork for the narrative of this song. It made it to number four on the Billboard R&B Singles chart, but ultimately caused the band members to go their separate ways.
1983: U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
This percussively march-like song from U2’s record War tells the story of the devastation of the Northern Ireland conflict. It describes the “Bloody Sunday” episode that occurred in Derry, where British forces shot civil protesters. The band’s run-in with IRA supporters in New York served as more direct inspiration for the song’s lyrics. Drummer Larry Mullen stated in an interview that the song is not necessarily about the politics of the conflict in Northern Ireland, but the concern that people are killing each other because of hatred.
1984: Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
The title track of Springsteen’s seventh album tells the story of the negative effects that the Vietnam War had on the American people, as well as the difficulties U.S. veterans encountered when they returned from war. Some critics assert that the song speaks to the upheaval of working class Americans who fought in the war because of blind nationalism. “Born in the USA” found wild success among critics and fans.
1985: Rush, “Manhattan Project”
Named after the infamous WWII project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, this track made it onto the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart in 1985. The song’s four verses each deal with a different subject -- verse one discusses the WWII era in general, verse two deals with nuclear researcher J. Robert Oppenheimer, verse three talks about the laboratory where the research took place, and verse four speaks of the pilot who released the bomb on Hiroshima.
1986: Genesis, “Land of Confusion”
Genesis got creative on this satirical piece from their album Invisible. The song probably gained the most traction because of its music video, which uses puppets from the British sketch show Spitting Image. Through caricatures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan as well as clips of world leaders speaking to the masses, the video comments on the state of foreign relations during the Cold War era. The band-members also appear in the video in their puppet-like states.
1987: Peter Tosh, “No Nuclear War”
The former member of the Wailers vehemently expresses his negative views on state of nuclear affairs in this track from the album of the same name. Themes of war-related working class struggles litter the entire record, including Tosh’s new version of "Fight Against Apartheid." The record won Tosh a Grammy for Best Reggae album a year after he was murdered in 1987.
1988: N.W.A., “F*** tha Police”
This track from the album Straight Outta Compton shines a harsh light on police brutality. Through clever parody, the song portrays Dr. Dre as a judge, and Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E as prosecutors who testify against the police department, exposing its hostility toward young black people. The song spoke so loudly at the time that an FBI agent sent a letter to the band’s record company stating that it portrayed the police in a false light. The band’s manager Jerry Heller revealed in his autobiography Ruthless that the agent in question falsely represented the FBI, and was transferred to a different department.
1989: Billy Joel, “Leningrad”
This tune from Joel’s record Storm Front tells the story of a Russian clown named Viktor, who Joel meets in the Soviet Union. The songwriter compares his own childhood to Viktor’s, drawing parallels as well as differences. He calls Viktor “a child of sacrifice,” whose father died in WWII. Joel sings that he grew up “a cold war kid in McCarthy time.” Ultimately, he indicates that there are more similarities than differences between his life and Viktor’s, Joshua Duchan insights in his book Billy Joel: America's Piano Man.
1990: Bad Religion, “21st Century (Digital Boy)”
Bad Religion originally released this protest song in 1990. But, four years later, they re-recorded and released it on Stranger than Fiction because their record label needed a single for that album. The song’s lyrics are rife with criticism of modern consumerism, especially young people’s obsession with technology. Members of the band have stated that they themselves are all for technology, they just believe that it can have positive and negative effects on the people who use it. The song is something of a tribute to King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
1991: Michael Jackson, “Heal the World”
Shortly after recording this balladic song calling for positive change, Jackson founded the Heal the World Foundation. The charity facilitated drug abuse prevention education, provided monetary support for impoverished children and made many other contributions throughout the world. Singer Judith Hill kicked off the singing of this heartfelt song at Jackson’s public memorial in 2009.
1992: Sonic Youth, “Youth Against Fascism”
This grunge-esque anti-Bush song hails from the band’s seventh album, Dirty. The line in the song “I believe Anita Hill” references the U.S. Attorney who accused Bush-nominated federal judge Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct in 1991. Ultimately, Thomas denied the allegations. The entire album is littered with politically-leaning tunes -- the song “Swimsuit Issue” tells the story of the Geffen Records employee who had a sexual harassment habit, and “Chapel Hill” is about the murder of Bob Sheldon, founder of Internationalist Books.
1993: Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl”
Joan Jett collaborated with these rebellious rockers to produce this irreverent punk song. It debunks the social norm of masculinity and heterosexuality in the sphere of rock music, especially with lines like “rebel girl you are the queen of my world, I know I want to take you home.” Other lyrics call for female-centered social change, like “when she talks, I hear the revolution.” The song is widely associated with the underground feminist movement Riot grrrl.
1994: The Cranberries, “Zombie”
This international hit from the record No Need to Argue makes powerful commentary on the 1993 IRA bombings in Warrington, and expresses contempt for the political situation in Ireland on the whole. Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball, who were children at the time, were among those killed in the bombings. Dolores O’Riordan apparently wrote the song in her apartment by herself. Stylistically, it stands apart from most of the band’s other output because of its grungy electric guitar work and O’Riordan’s forceful vocal delivery in the chorus.
1995: Ben Harper, “Excuse Me Mr.”
You may know Ben Harper for the popular song “Steal My Kisses,” but he has written more lyrically substantial music throughout his career. He speak-sings commentary on the state of the environment and global poverty in this reggae-infused track from Fight for Your Mind. Harper drew influence from a few other greats who have a track record of producing poignant political songs, like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
1996: Sleater Kinney, “Anonymous”
This song from Sleater Kinney’s record Call the Doctor describes a woman who, on the outside, lives a typical life -- she has a boyfriend, a car and a job -- but there’s more to her story she doesn’t reveal. On the whole, the song comments on the pressure that women in the public eye face to spare no detail about their personal lives. In an interview with Metroactive, guitarist Corin Tucker said that a lot of the writing on the record stems from the consumerist nature of society.
1997: Trapp featuring Tupac and Biggie, “Stop the Gunfight”
Trapp wove themes of anti-violence throughout the entire album that sports this title track. Hip-hop greats Tupac and Biggie, featured on this song and throughout the album, lost their lives to gun violence in the mid ‘90s. Part of the profit from album sales was donated to the gun buyback program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
1998: Dispatch, “The General”
This fan favorite from the album Bang Bang tells the story of a respected general who comes to realize that war is ultimately pointless. Frontman Chad Urmston said that though the song is based on the American Civil War and the general in question is Robert E. Lee, it speaks out against war in general.
1999: Ani DiFranco “To the Teeth”
Ani DiFranco has certainly made her voice known when it comes to pertinent political and social issues. The title track from DiFranco’s 10th album condemns American gun culture, particularly referencing the mass shooting at Columbine High School. Some of her darkly poetic lyrics include, “are we really going to sleep through another century, while the rich profit off our blood?” The record contains other tracks that address heated issues, like “Hello Birmingham,” which comments on shootings fueled by pro-life advocates.
2000: Radiohead, “Idioteque”
The bumping electronic number from Radiohead’s album Kid A made some prominent best-of lists in the ‘00s, including Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The song samples the experimental digital piece “Mild Und Leise” by Paul Lansky. The lyrics of the song home in on the perils of warfare and climate change, with lines like “who’s in the bunker, women and children first, who’s in the bunker, I have seen too much,” and “ice age coming, let me hear both sides.”
2001: Kristy Jackson, “Little Did She Know (She’d Kissed a Hero)”
Jackson wrote this tribute in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. She specifically references flight 93 in the lyrics. After the song’s release on September 23rd of ‘01, Jackson received more than 5,000 emails in response to this heart wrenching song. It was the most requested song on major New York radio stations in the wake of the attacks.
2002: Tori Amos, “I Can’t See New York”
In an interview with USA Today, Amos described this 18-song concept album as “a musical search for America’s soul.” The record follows the story of fictional Scarlet, loosely based on Amos, as she travels across America. She encounters a plane crash in New York City, as described in this track, as well as the sad history of the land from a Native American standpoint, which affected Amos’s maternal ancestors. Amos told USA Today that she conceived of the New York plane crash before the events of September 11th.
2003: Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake, “Where is the Love”
This musical partnership between Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake got major radio play and gleaned a Grammy nomination in 2004 for Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Members of the band, including will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo gave their lyrical two cents about terrorism and racism, specifically referencing 9/11, gang-related violence and other politically-heated issues.
2004: Green Day, “American Idiot”
This title track from Green Day’s 2004 effort digs into the American mass media for its tendency to shield the public from the reality of world events, partially in reference to the Iraq War. The band’s bassist and singer Mike Dirnt stated in an interview with UK magazine Kerrang that the song promotes individuality rather than expressing anger, though it has been associated with flag-burning. In 2005 the trio won four Grammy awards for the song, including Record of the Year.
2005: Bright Eyes, “When the President Talks to God"
Conor Oberst wrote this protest song to express his negative views of the Bush administration at the time. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Oberst stated that he was “extremely angry after Bush got re-elected,” and felt obliged to speak out against a president whose policies he seriously questioned. Oberst starts dragging the former president over the coals in the very first verse, which reads, “when the president talks to God, are the conversations brief or long, does he ask to rape our women’s rights, and send poor farm kids off to die, does God suggest an oil hike, when the president talks to God?”
2006: The Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”
The Dixie Chicks co-wrote this hit with Dan Wilson of the band Semisonic. It is the result of public ridicule in response to a politically-heated statement that lead singer Natalie Maines made between songs at a 2003 gig. She spoke out against the Iraq War, adding that the band “is ashamed that George Bush is from Texas.” Country music fans took issue with this statement, which some news outlets quoted out of context, and many country radio stations refused to play the band’s music. In the song, Maines stands by her convictions and makes her feelings about the debacle perfectly clear.
2007: M.I.A.: “Paper Planes”
This track from M.I.A.’s album Kala makes commentary on society’s misguided perception of immigrants, that they’re just out for their own gain and don’t contribute to culture. The song samples “Straight to Hell” by The Clash, and was recorded in one shot in the morning before M.I.A. had even brushed her teeth, which she said was part of the reason the vocals were quirkily performed. The singer also stated that she included the gunshot and cash register sounds in the chorus partly to comment on society’s obsession with material wealth, as well as the toxicity of the firearms industry.
2008: Sheryl Crow, “Shine Over Babylon”
This single from Crow’s record Detours paints a picture of humankind’s destruction of the environment, through lyrics like “freedoms etched on sacred pillars, hollow stones of mindless filler, can lead to madman oil drillers, won’t be long before we are all killers.” Ultimately, Crow reminds us that mankind is responsible for its own downfall. Detours features other socially and politically-leaning songs, including “Love is Free” and “Gasoline.”
2009: Lily Allen, “Him”
This tune from Allen’s triple platinum album It’s Not Me, It’s You is another sardonic portrayal of the hateful, selfish and destructive aspects of society, this time from the perspective of God. Lyrically, Allen touches on subjects such as racism, poverty, drug use and terrorism, specifically referencing the 9/11 attacks. Critics and fans received the record with open arms.
2010: Fitz and the Tantrums, “Dear Mr. President”
Lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick calls for social change through this motown-esque tune from Pickin’ Up the Pieces. The song zooms in on a homeless family who can’t feed themselves, making overarching commentary on widespread poverty, drug use and street violence. BBC music critic Paul Lester wrote that elements of ‘60s and’70s soul are so well entwined in this record “that you sometimes have to pinch yourself that you’re not actually listening to ‘the real thing.’”
2011: Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”
This wildly popular title track from Gaga’s critically acclaimed record is all about freedom. Gaga calls for the world to take her as she is, and the same goes for the various minority communities she references throughout the song. In an interview with Billboard, Gaga said that the song “is visually and thematically and lyrically about birthing a race within the race of already existing cultures of humanity -- that bears no prejudice and no judgement.”
2012: Bruce Springsteen, “We Take Care of Our Own”
Through this single from the album Wrecking Ball, Springsteen expresses his disappointment in people’s reluctance to help each other out of the kindness of their hearts, especially amidst economic turmoil. Essentially, Springsteen frustratedly wishes that America could be more of a unified country. The song was played after Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential victory speech, which resulted in a serious spike in sales.
2013: Kanye West, “New Slaves”
Kanye touches on a lot of salient topics throughout this track from his album Yeezus, such as slavery, racism and general materialism. The song features rapper/producer Frank Ocean, who, at the end of the song, can be heard singing over a sample of a piece by Hungarian band Omega. Time magazine named “New Slaves” one of 25 "Best Songs of 2013".
2014: White Lung, “I Believe You”
This powerful pop punk song from White Lung lashes out against rape culture, describing a scenario in which a young girl tells her friend she was raped, and her friend wholeheartedly believes her. During a time when an abundance of rape cases made the news, cases in which victims’ memories have been called into question, this song speaks volumes. The band’s Front gal Mish Way told Pitchfork that she based the song on Runaways singer Cherie Currie’s perspective on rape, as detailed in her book Neon Angel.
2015: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
This co-write with Pharrell Williams from the album To Pimp a Butterfly stems from Lamar’s experience in Africa seeing the hardships of the country’s people firsthand. The song quickly transformed into a protest symbol expressing black pride. It starts off with a semi-sung version of the famous quote “All my life I had to fight,” from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The song has made multiple best-of 2015 lists.
2016: Beyoncé, “Formation”
It’s difficult not to have heard, or at least heard about Beyonce’s groundbreaking track from 2016’s Lemonade -- analyses and accolades poured into the media like a deluge when the song dropped. Beyonce seems not to give a damn as she embraces her African American identity on this hit that sports samples from Louisiana musician Big Freedia and rapper Messy Mya. MTV writer Joseph Lamour described the track as “a song whose lyrics are teeming with notions of empowerment and pride in her heritage as a black American with roots in Alabama and Louisiana.”
2017: Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Almost Like Praying”
The man behind the genius of Hamilton created this hip-hop-flavored song with the help of Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Gina Rodriguez, Gloria Estefan and a slew of others to raise money for Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria. Miranda derived the song’s title from a line in the West Side Story number “Maria,” and borrowed its melody and lyrics for his main motif. In an interview in Time, Miranda stated that he included all of Puerto Rico’s 78 towns in the lyrics as a way of breaking radio silence between Puerto Ricans and their loved ones shortly after the hurricane. Billboard suggests that he not so subtly calls out the Trump administration for merely sending prayers in the direction of the disaster victims, instead of taking action.
2018: Dessa, “Fire Drills”
Dessa, a contributor to 2017’s “Almost Like Praying,” spits poetic and abrasive lyrics in this hit from her new album Chime. She puts our patriarchal society under the microscope as she raps about the age-old confines that thwart women’s ability to live without fear or discrimination. KEXP reports that the song’s beat is partially comprised of a field recording that Dessa made while in Turkey. The single has already been making positive waves on major news and radio outlets.