In a genre that often goes terribly wrong, these efforts stand out as all-time greats
When poorly executed, as they often are, political songs are some of the worst songs there are. That's why success in the genre is noteworthy. You'll find a lot of "ten best" lists out there, which are great for stoking debate, but my musical knowledge, like that of most people, is missing decades of songs from whole genres. So rather than assert a definitive canon, what I want to argue is that all of the following belong in the Hall of Fame for Political Songs -- and to encourage dissents and additions, especially from folks whose iTunes libraries look different than mine. I've granted Bob Dylan a lifetime achievement award and kept him out of the competition to make things fair.
In no particular order:
11) Strange Fruit performed by Billie Holiday
Says Dorian Lynskey in his history of protest music:
Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Unlike the robust workers' anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. "That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard," Nina Simone would later marvel. "Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country." For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art.
10) Mississippi Goddamn by Nina Simone
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet
9) La Marseillaise as performed in Casablanca
The French national anthem makes the list for its use in this cinematic scene alone -- gives me chills every time I watch it.
8) Rednecks by Randy Newman
The album on which this song appears, Good Old Boys, is one of the most underrated of its era. It got a 5 star review in Rolling Stone, but the brief staff review on iTunes gets closer to capturing the genius: "From the scathing, Lester Maddox-invoking opening bars of 'Rednecks,' Randy Newman serves notice here that he's taking no prisoners -- an especially nervy gambit considering the themes of this loose concept album: the racist near-past of America's Southern underbelly and its odious, lingering legacy." Don't worry, Southerners, he doesn't spare the North.
7) The Promise by Bruce Springsteen
Said Joe Posnanski in his wonderful essay on this song, "Born to Run is about that brilliant age when you know dreams don't come true, but you still believe they might come true FOR YOU. And The Promise is about the every day numbing of those dreams." Written decades ago, it fits these times.
6) The Star Spangled Banner as performed by Jimi Hendrix