Fight the power: The Top 50 protest songs

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Public Enemy protest songs

Black Messiah review30. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – “The Charade”
from Black Messiah (2014; RCA)

D’Angelo was getting precariously close to the 15-year mark since releasing his 2000 album Voodoo when a wave of violence against black men, perpetrated by police officers, prompted him to release Black Messiah once and for all. As much a statement as a celebration, Black Messiah arrived during a fraught moment in U.S. history—one where racism and hate was no longer politely swept under the rug, but captured on cell phones and dashboard cams. “The Charade” is a hymn for peace and sanity, a Prince-inspired psych-soul message that echoed the message of Black Lives Matter in its haunting verses: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’stead we only got outlined in chalk.” – Jeff Terich

top 50 protest songs Specials29. The Specials – “Ghost Town”
(1981; 2 Tone)

Margaret Thatcher became British prime minister in 1979, and it didn’t take long for the music scene to revolt. Bands from The Jam to The Beat were riding high in the charts with attacks on her “there is no such thing as society” rhetoric. Yet it was The Specials—a politically conscious ska revivalist band from England’s Midlands—who created the most fulsome evisceration of her social policies. Globalization, urban decay, unemployment, youth violence and growing inequality were condensed into just under four minutes, and the song struck so close to the heart of the problem that it spent an astonishing three weeks at Number One. In the current climate, where the same list of problems flourish, such a feat is unimaginable. – Max Pilley

top 50 protest songs creedence28. Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Fortunate Son”
from Willy and the Poor Boys (1969; Fantasy)

The thing that strikes me most about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is that it’s barely more than two minutes long. At a time when many artists were expanding song lengths along with their politics consciousness, CCR leader John Fogerty delivered one of the greatest musical fuck-yous of all time in a format that was built for AM radio. And why not? This way nobody could ignore it. No wonder it was a hit. – Adam Ellsworth

top 50 protest songs stevie wonder27. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City”
from Innervisions (1973; Motown/Universal)

Stevie Wonder created a mini-blaxploitation movie at the heart of his landmark Innervisions album in 1973. With his growing artistic independence, he was increasingly incorporating a social conscience into his music, and never was his indignant fury better articulated than it was here. As he unspins this tale of a boy growing up in hard-time Mississippi, he makes little effort to contain the anger in his voice. The boy leaves home to make it in the city, whereupon—in an early prototype of a rap skit—we hear that the injustice there is all the more aggressive. Stevie channels his outrage through an evangelical prism to create something beautiful, but we are in no doubt of his sentiment. – Max Pilley

top 50 protest songs Stiff Little Fingers26. Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”
from Inflammable Material (1979; Rough Trade)

In 1978, Northern Ireland was embroiled in the worst moments of The Troubles, with terrorism and state aggression rife across Ireland and Britain. Coinciding with the height of the punk revolution, the Belfast scene was brimming with bands (see the wonderful film Good Vibrations to learn more) but few were making the obvious choice to speak out. Stiff Little Fingers rarely did anything but tackle The Troubles in their early songs, and this wake-up call was their defining moment. “Grab it and change it, it’s yours/Get an alternative Ulster/Be an anti-security force,” sang Jake Burns, at a time when to do so was legitimately dangerous. – Max Pilley

top 50 protest songs queen25. Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”
from Hot Space (1982; EMI)

This is not so much a protest against government as it is a protest of the human condition. “Under Pressure” works not just as a masterpiece of music that teeters between minimalism and bombastic maximalism, but as an examination of the challenge of actually committing to love one another. “Under Pressure” is what true solidarity can mean, and the difficulty in achieving it through the avenue of unconditional love and respect. Through tough times, it’s a powerful message to examine and consider. – Brian Roesler

top 50 protest songs fucked up24. Fucked Up – “Son the Father”
from The Chemistry of Common Life (2008; Matador)

Fucked Up make a habit of being eloquent and accurate in their statements about existence, politics and living in a world not of our choosing. “Son the Father” continues this examination of our reality through the lens of religion, which weighs on us all in myriad ways. But instead of merely and perhaps tiredly criticizing religion, Damian Abraham claims the song asks us all to “become our own faith”—a truly powerful concept expressed incredibly well with explosive energy. – Brian Roesler

top 50 protest songs Nina Simone23. Nina Simone – “Mississippi Goddam”
from Nina Simone in Concert (1964; Philips)

The civil rights movement didn’t produce as many angry songs as you might think, but “Mississippi Goddam” is the exception that proves the rule. The song was inspired by the assassination of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four little girls. In it Miss Simone is justifiably pissed, because everybody knew about Mississippi (and Alabama, and Tennessee, and the entire South) but goddam, nothing was changing. We’ve come a long way since then, but goddam if we don’t still have a long way to go. – Adam Ellsworth

best Radiohead songs Kid A22. Radiohead – “Idioteque”
from Kid A (2000; Parlophone)

Last year, CNN interviewed Bill Nye in the midst of Louisiana’s catastrophic bout with floods caused by eroding coastlines. Throughout the interview, CNN correspondent and egomaniac Chris Cuomo pries for an explanation that doesn’t concern climate change. Nye insists, standing his ground, stating, “It’s only going to get worse.” He is “not scaremongering. This is really happening.” Radiohead’s “Idioteque” has only become increasingly relevant with the passage of time. It’s nauseatingly panic-stricken, detailing an apocalyptic vision of earthly desolation at the hands of humanity. “Idioteque” is terrifying; it’s hopelessly depressing. But most importantly, it’s real. This is really happening. – Patrick Pilch

top 50 protest songs Woody Guthrie21. Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land”
from This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1 (1997; Smithsonian Folkways)

Like perhaps all American children, in elementary school my classmates and I were taught such patriotic standards as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” “Proud to be an American,” and “This Land is Your Land.” It was only as I got older that I discovered that last song wasn’t quite like the other ones, a fact my teachers never told me. Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to “God Bless America,” a song he couldn’t escape hearing and quickly grew sick of. What Guthrie knew was that makes America great is its people, and any patriotic song that praises God, praises government, or waves the flag just for the sake of it misses the point. Maybe it’s good teachers didn’t teach us that part; it’s probably the only way they can could get away with teaching the song at all. – Adam Ellsworth

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