Last week we unveiled our 100 Top Political Songs playlist on Spotify and in our article we included blurbs on what we really love about songs #1-20. A week later, we like these songs so much that we wanted to say something about songs #21-100. Buckle up. This takes a while so 21 through 60 will be this week and 61 through 100 the following week.
The Spotify Playlist
Hope you like it & discover some new music here.
Comments - 21 Through 60
21. Joe Strummer - Johnny Appleseed (2001)
OK, I blew it. This should be in the top ten of my list. This song has it all: Great music, inventive sound, oblique enough to be open to interpretation but also ostensibly about workers rights. "If you’re after getting the honey then you don’t go killing all the bees." Get this in your ears, stat.
22. The Band - King Harvest (Has Surely Come) (1969)
A bummer about the plight of a farmer and the union who came in with empty promises. Very few rock songs are about practical conditions for farmers. None have hooky verses and transcendent choruses like this.
23. Pink - Dear Mr. President (2006)
A pretty open-hearted letter to George W. Bush really wondering what he really thinks of his own policies, with a little side nod to VP Dick Cheney about supporing and pushing policy that harmed his own gay daughter.
24. U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)
A great, unambiguous song about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, particularly about Bloody Sunday in 1972. If you’re new to the issue, think of the movie Belfast. U2’s latter political songs of the Rattle & Hum era could be a little ham-handed, but this is U2 as a rock band at its best with something real to say.
25. The Specials - Nelson Mandela (1984)
aka "Free Nelson Mandela". Possibly the best ska song ever made, I honestly think the song’s catchiness helped keep Nelson Mandela’s wrongful imprisonment in the forefront of young people’s minds and indirectly put pressure on the South African government to eventually do the right thing.
26. Peter Tosh - Equal Rights (1977)
This song makes a similar lyrical case to The Clash’s "Know Your Rights" about how unfortunately "rights" are something that the upper class have more access to. Sure, Peter Tosh is the hipster choice vs. Bob Marley but Tosh’s best songs are more pointed politically, while Bob had more range.
27. Elvis Costello - Tramp The Dirt Down (1989)
Margaret Thatcher inspired a lot of great vitriolic songs. Don’t let the the Middle Age strings arrangement fool you, this is the harshest of this genre. Elvis felt that Thatcher did not merit the benefit of the doubt. The line "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam" is Elvis just getting warmed up. Extra reading: Greil Marcus’ take
28. Warren Zevon - Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner (1978)
Who else can make an endlessly-listenable song about a Norweigan involved in surreptituous proxy wars and CIA interference in the most remote corners of the world. My two songwriting heroes are Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, either of whom could and would write about anything. Trivia: This is the last song Warren ever played on the Letterman show.
29. The Decemberists - 16 Military Wives (2005)
It’s as much about the media’s representation of American military action as it is about American military action. Seeing these chorus lyrics in print can’t do justice to how catchy it is: ""Cause America can and America can’t say no - And America does, if America says it’s so, it’s so."
30. Bob Dylan - The Hurricane (1976)
He’s got more famous protest songs but this one has a much more narrow purpose: Getting people (and the courts) to reconsider the wrongful conviction of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Yes, Blowin In The Wind changed the world in the early 60s, but if you want to listen to a political Dylan song in 2022, I’d say you choose this one.
31. Was (Not Was) - 11 MPH (1988)
How the fuck did these guys make a danceable song about the JFK assassination? I’m not sure, but they did it. These lyrics make a great real-world case for the conspiracy, which they would also revisit in a sillier but just as pointed song, "I Feel Better Than James Brown" in 1990.
32. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)
Personally, I don’t think there’s a ton of trenchant insight from Green Day’s political songs - the conceit here is that the media is actively making American’s dumber. It’s a simple (and correct) thesis, but the energy really just comes from the music. This whole album was their high water mark.
33. Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) (1971)
The lyrics here are pretty much a long name-check of every social and political bummer you’d see coming out of the 60s. This is a funky groove that would have been a hit with any words, but these words made it important.
34. Neil Young - Mideast Vacation (1987)
Not enough artists in the 1980s figured out how to write politically about the U.S. and the Middle East. This song is four great verses of smart, political imagery. Also, it was in a really forgotten part of Neil’s career and just a really great song that fell in the cracks.
35. Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town (2007)
First off, this is a beautiful song - and a hypnotic cycle of chords that’s hard to stop playing once you get started. The lyrics obviously take issue with the U.S. but it’s really kind of a breakup song between Rufus and America; and really that the U.S. is "beautiful but thorny" as he once said about this song.
36. M.I.A. - Paper Planes (2008)
Another focused political song, this one about conflict in Sri Lanka and their government’s ethnic policies and violence. The music is an extended sampling of The Clash’s "Straight To Hell". Note: The group kid choruses were recorded with local street kids in two sessions, one in Brixton in the U.K. and the other in Bed-Stuy in the U.S.
37. Talking Heads - The Democratic Circus (1988)
The images of a campaign and a circus really go together extremely naturally. The Talking Heads were close to a breakup here, but they’re back using a Remain In Light faux-African feel again here. An overlooked gem of theirs and great imagery of how the line between politics and show business was starting to get blurry. Which makes this song still relevant today.
38. Bruce Springsteen - Youngstown (1995)
You could name a dozen Springsteen songs about hard economic realities off of the top of your head. But the more you listen to this one, the better it gets. There’s a history lesson here but it doesn’t sound like homework at all. Bruce has a way of tying the past to the present and shows how we repeat our mistakes. The live version in the Spotify list has Nils Lofgren absolutely going off in his solo and somehow makes a bummer of a song actually inspirational all by itself.
39. Nellie McKay - Inner Peace (2004)
Her anonymity and lack of fame absolutely pisses me off and reminds me that show business is not necessarily a meritocracy. Her NYC piano playing is bad-ass and she came in hot with her double debut album of biting lyrics. This probably isn’t even the most political song of hers on the album, but there’s enough poltiical stuff in here and a killer arrangement that this is how I’ll represent her on this list. Do yourself a favor and try her first album.
40. Living Colour - Cult Of Personality (1988)
This song was a big deal among serious music fans in the late 80s. It’s political insight might be a little overblown, with just a few clever Soviet references. But I do like what Vernon Reid said about it: "The whole idea was to move past the duality of: That’s a good person and that’s a bad person. What do the good and the bad have in common? Is there something that unites Gandhi and Mussolini?"
41. Bob Marley - Get Up, Stand Up (1973)
Co-written by Tosh and Marley, it was allegedly inspired by Marley seeing the depth of poverty in Haiti while touring there. The sentiment could be applied to almost any cause that you have to get off your ass and fight for your rights, no matter what they are.
42. Randy Newman - Louisiana 1927 (1974)
Incredible that an important 1974 song was about a New Orleans flood in the 1920s. The song had a moment around Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with history repeating itself: devastation and a lacking federal government response, in the song it’s "President Coolidge came down in a railroad train with a little fat man with a notepad in his hand. President say "little fat man, isn’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?"
43. Paul McCartney - Give Ireland Back To The Irish (1972)
Another one about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. You could expect irish artists to be outspoken but not a British superstar or a Beatle. This song is raw, ballsy and on the right side of history. Trivia: It’s the first Wings single. Predictably, it was banned in the UK by the BBC. Take a listen.
44. Stevie Wonder - You Haven’t Done Nothin’ (1974)
The "You" in "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" is Richard Nixon. In a year of #1 songs like "Kung Fu Fighting" and "Having My Baby" this vote of no confidence in Nixon and politicians are a startling #1 song. Note: The Jackson 5 are doing the "doo-doo wop" after the choruses.
45. Peter Gabriel - Family Snapshot (1980)
This song is only really political in that it centers on a fictitious political assassination from the point of view of the would-be assassin. It’s really a hell of a musical journey and the crux is political murder as basically a play for fame. Then the quiet coda at the end makes the case that it’s all just basic human need that got twisted. It’s a real emotional haymaker at the end of a wild ride.
46. The Clash - Straight To Hell (1982)
The lyrical targets of this political song are pretty rangy: unemployment and loss of blue-collar jobs in Northern England then into a second verse about abandoned Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. You’ve never heard a song sound like this (until M.I.A. sampled it for "Paper Planes"). Most punk bands reveled in not being able to play their instruments; The Clash started there and then evolved into making sound like this. As a result, they’re probably the only punk band worth talking about decades later.
47. Marvin Gaye - Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (1971)
Is this the first environmental song? Maybe. It’s a fantastic sounding part of one of the best socially conscious albums of all time. This is a toe-tapping question of "What are we fucking doing to the Earth" which nobody has really answered.
48. Graham Nash - Chicago (1971)
I probably should have this song higher. It’s about the voilence at anti-Vietnam protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It’s a trippy song, getting into the screwed up trial of the Chicago 7 (or 8 depending on how you view the trial’s extra weird treatment of Bobby Seale) and also the chorus is really Nash pleading with his bandmates to play a benefit concert, "Won’t you please come to Chicago just to sing" / "We can change the world".
49. Gil Scott-Heron - Whitey On The Moon (1970)
A little less musical than his "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and a lot less musical than his "South Carolina" but very, very effective. A killer poem of listing some typical problem of extreme poverty (e.g. "A rat bit my sister Nell") then always comparing with "And Whitey’s on the moon". I’ve been raised to see the importance of going to the Moon and advancements that resulted, but listening to this song makes me think twice.
50. Cream - Politician (1968)
Here’s a song that I should have lower. There’s not a lot of great observations here ("I support the left thought I’m leaning to the right") about politicians being soulless weasels. But musically, I do think it’s my favorite Cream song and an unforgettable guitar riff.
51. Warren Zevon - Veracruz (1978)
This is real history about the U.S. occupation of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution, yet it ties to the personal in a profound way - the Spanish lyrics in the bridge are moving, check it out. But it’s also timeless in that it shows what kind of trouble lies ahead when an occupying force pulls out.
52. Bruce Springsteen - American Skin (41 Shots) (2001)
A really moving song about Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was killed in his New York City doorway when New York City police shot at him 41 times after mistaking his wallet for a gun. Bruce has long been a hit with blue-collar cops, but not this time. Springsteen has stressed that "this song is not anti-police, but anti-tragedy." Even if you have social-justice-fatigue with Bruce songs, it’s hard to not appreciate this song as powerful. Listen to how quiet Madison Square Garden is on the live recording, followed by a blistering Springsteen guitar solo at the end.
53. The Rolling Stones - Street Fighting Man (1968)
The Stones were not known as being extremely political. But this one seems to get the energy right in reacting to the violence, change and unknown around everyone at the end of the 60s ï¿½" and being alive at the time and just not quite knowing what to do to help move things forward.
54. Bright Eyes - Road To Joy (2005)
A lot of songs critical of the U.S. during the iraq War era are mainly taking issues with the Bush Administration or the media at the time. But a lot of this song’s beef seems to be with us U.S. citizens who plowed forward with our trivial concerns while bad shit was happening. I love the crescendo this thing builds towards. Bravo.
55. Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam (1964)
A lot of 1960s songs took a broad view of things-are-in-turmoil. This is more incendiary, specifically responding to bald-faced murder of Medgar Evers and southern Freedom Fighters and how bleak it was to be black and in the South at the time. And the "Do it slow" stuff is still chilling. It’s the spritual daughter of Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" (which I should’ve had at the top of the list if it’s a political song).
56. Randy Newman - A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country (2003)
A great toe-tapper from Randy and also marries his big orchestration stuff with his New Orleans piano shuffle. This song walks you through Roman emperor hypocrisy, Belgium’s version of manifest destiny and shits on Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia without mentioning them by name. Pop politics at its best.
57. World Party - Ship Of Fools (1986)
This is 1980s alternative pop at the highest level. I’m a huge World Party fan. The message is fairly simple: The capitalist drive for money is not only a greedy road to take, but one that will not ultimately make you happy even if you succeed. World Party losing its luster was an awful musical development in the 1990s & 2000s.
58. Buffalo Springsteen - For What It’s Worth (1966)
Stephen Stills intially wrote this in a response to curfew riots in L.A. on the Sunset Strip. That was 1966 which meant this song was around to grow and mean a lot more as the 1960s and the counter-culture meant more and more. We’ve probably heard it too much and seen it as a montage in lame movies about the 60s, but don’t hold that against the song.
59. Bob Marley - I Shot The Sheriff (1973)
Maybe a song that is basically fuck-the-police doesn’t have the subtlety of "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" above, but simplicity is not a bad thing. I will say that it makes more sense coming from Bob Marley than Eric Clapton but what are you gonna do.
60. Sly & The Family Stone - Everyday People (1969)
A lot of the songs from 1966-1972 on this list are reactions to a world gone crazy. This song kinda is that, except instead of listing the negative it just lists the ideals of how we should all try to live. It’s aspirational and inspirational. And musically it somehow sounds like it could have been recorded last month.
The Whole List
1 The Clash - Know Your Rights 2 Ben Folds - Mister Peepers 3 Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 4 Randy Newman - The World Isn’t Fair 5 Muse - United States of Eurasia 6 Marvin Gaye - What’s Going On 7 Bruce Springsteen - The Ghost Of Tom Joad 8 Bruce Hornsby - The Way it Is 9 Arcade Fire - Intervention 10 The Style Council - Homebreakers 11 Elvis Costello - Peace In Our Time 12 Lily Allen - Fuck You 12 Randy Newman - Political Science 14 Creedence Clearwater Revival - Fortunate Son 15 Les McCann & Eddie Harris - Compared To What 16 Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come 17 David Byrne - Miss America 18 Stevie Wonder - Village Ghetto Land 19 Janelle Monae - Turntables 20 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Ohio 21 Joe Strummer - Johnny Appleseed 22 The Band - King Harvest (Has Surely Come) 23 Pink - Dear Mr. President 24 U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday 25 The Specials - Nelson Mandela 26 Peter Tosh - Equal Rights 27 Elvis Costello - Tramp The Dirt Down 28 Warren Zevon - Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner 29 The Decemberists - 16 Military Wives 30 Bob Dylan - The Hurricane 31 Was (Not Was) - 11 MPH 32 Green Day - American Idiot 33 Marvin Gaye - Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) 34 Neil Young - Mideast Vacation 35 Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town 36 M.I.A. - Paper Planes 37 Talking Heads - The Democratic Circus 38 Bruce Springsteen - Youngstown 39 Nellie McKay - Inner Peace 40 Living Colour - Cult Of Personality 41 Bob Marley - Get Up, Stand Up 42 Randy Newman - Louisiana 1927 43 Paul McCartney - Give Ireland Back To The Irish 44 Stevie Wonder - You Haven’t Done Nothin’ 45 Peter Gabriel - Family Snapshot 46 The Clash - Straight To hell 47 Marvin Gaye - Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) 48 Graham Nash - Chicago 49 Gil Scott-Heron - Whitey On The Moon 50 Cream - Politician 51 Warren Zevon - Veracruz 52 Bruce Springsteen - American Skin (41 Shots) 53 The Rolling Stones - Street Fighting Man 54 Bright Eyes - Road To Joy 55 Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam 56 Randy Newman - A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country 57 World Party - Ship Of Fools 58 Buffalo Springsteen - For What It’s Worth 59 Bob Marley - I Shot The Sheriff 60 Sly & The Family Stone - Everyday People 61 Bob Marley - Buffalo Soldier 62 Bruce Springsteen - Sinaloa Cowboys 63 Talking Heads - Puzzlin’ Evidence 64 Tom Waits - Day After Tomorrow 65 Parliament - Chocolate City 66 Ani DiFranco - My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage 67 Midnight Oil - Blue Sky Mine 68 Fela Kuti - Zombie 69 James Taylor - Shed A Little Light 70 The Flaming Lips - The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song 71 Macy Gray - It Ain’t The Money 72 The Clash - The Guns Of Brixton 73 Eurhthmics - Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves 74 Drive-By Truckers - Babies In Cagies 75 Peter Gabriel - Games Without Frontiers 76 Barry McGuire - Eve Of Destruction 77 Randy Newman - Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man) 78 Manic Street Preachers - A Design For Life 79 The Style Council - Come To Milton Keynes 80 The Kinks - Get Back In Line 81 Los Lobos - Revolution 82 Chuck Prophet - Nixonland 83 The Police - Re-Humanise Yourself 84 Death Cab For Cutie - Million Dollar Loan 85 Paul Simon - American Tune 86 The English Beat - Stand Down Margaret 87 Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar - Freedom 88 Dramarama - What Are We Gonna Do? 89 Tom Russell - Who’s Gonnaa Build Your Wall? 90 The Jam - Down In The Tube Station At Midnight 91 James Brown - Funky President (People It’s Bad) 92 The Clash - London Calling 93 Don Henley - A Month Of Sundays 94 Chicano Batman - Freedom Is Free 95 Van Dyke Parks - Yankee, Go Home 96 Steel Pulse - Ku Klux Klan 97 Tears For Fears - Sowing The Seeds Of Love 98 Gary Clark Jr. - This Land 99 Billy Bragg - Waiting For The Great Leap Forward 100 The Beatles - Revolution