I can't say correlation in any way necessarily means causation, but this year the crop of politically relevant and/or inspired music grew much the same as the Democratic Party's electoral and now political power. So the issue now is: what do we do with this trend and how can we make the most of it?
The most blatantly political song of 2006 has to be Neil Young's "Let's Impeach The President." I found it eminently satisfying that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young spent the summer singing it to many thousands. But one fact remains. As much as I love the "flip-flop" refrain applied to Bush -- why can't our politicians hammer that point home as well? -- it's just not that great a song. Good, yes -- Neil Young doesn't ever write crap. But not a great song, much as I love the sentiment and agree with the message, at least in spirit (though as a political practicality, good luck).
Artists from across the spectrum are commenting on politics and issues that matter far more in their music than we've seen for some time -- far more than I can mention in this space. Pop stars like Pink are doing songs like "Dear Mr. President" (with The Indigo Girls helping out). John Meyer writes about "Waiting on the World to Change." Bruce Springsteen is channeling Pete Seeger. Bands you should know, like Midwestern roots rockers The Bottle Rockets, are commenting on the need to "Align Yourself." It's happening, finally.
But now we need the truly happening songs. The quantity is up; now the quality needs to rise to meet the considerable challenges of the times we live in. In 2007, I want to hear those songs that speak to these times and all times at the same time.
The template is there: Bob Dylan. Last year, The Cowboy Junkies showed how his '80s sleeper "License to Kill" means maybe even more today (and their CD/DVD Long Journey Home is one of this year's non-politicized pleasures). Dylan gave us Modern Times, an album that used his roots to make music for 2006, but without any political commentary. But as I have said many times, he's already made more than his lasting contribution on that front, and as I say above, set the standard. (And if you, like me, are an amateur Dylanologist, check out the DVD Bob Dylan 1966-1978: After The Crash to understand him better).
There is one song this year -- featured in my earlier column on my Revolutionary Mix '06 -- that reaches Dylan-esque heights of beauty, spirit, soul and lasting resonance: "Warring Ways" by little-known but hugely talented Southern rootsy pop-rocker Will Kimbrough. It's found on Americanitis, which rates as the best album about the times we live in that was released this last year. Great music and nutritious for the soul as well!
I've already written about some of the year's political music highlights: Hamell on Trial's broadside Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs and Wild Bouquet by the Burns Sisters. From the militant and fierce to the sweetly persuasive, they represent where folk music should be these days both musically and thematically.
In the once-committed realm of rock steady music (a.k.a. reggae), two political winners this year: England's UB40 has come up with their best album in years with Who Are You Fighting For? With killer commentary like "War Poem" and love songs like "Reasons" atop great musical tracks, it was one of my most consistent road trip CDs. And longtime agitprop act Michael Franti and Spearhead also came up with his finest music to date as well as message music with appeal and punch on Yell Fire!
Of course, if you haven't, you should get Taking The Long Way by The Dixie Chicks, first, because it's a great album of intelligent, progressive country that even the most blue-state sophisticate can love. And second, after being the brave ones they were in slamming Bush and sticking to their guns, they deserve our support.
Just as musically compelling is Paul Simon's aptly-named Surprise, with "sonic landscapes" by Brian Eno, another of my Top 10 of the year in sheer listening pleasure. And its song "Wartime Prayers" may be the best musical balm for all that ails the world right now.
Springsteen got the folk spirit on the non-political We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which is one of his most humane and natural studio recordings. He's also been playing the Vietnam-era Seeger song "Bring Them Home" in concert (and, oddly enough, the aforementioned Burns Sisters have one by the same name just as powerful). Meanwhile, though I've never been that big on many of Springsteen's classic studio records, I could barely stop listening to his live set issue this year, Hammersmith Odeon, London '75, a wonderful gem from the past that shows why he became the star he is.
It's been nice to see artists of all stripe come up with the relevant release of songs that aren't on albums just because the public should hear them. I've not been so impressed before with the work of young listener fave Conor Oberst a.k.a. Bright Eyes. But his song "When The President Talks To God" was a killer single. Meanwhile, country-folk stalwart came up with the most cogent comment on the issue of immigration and the Southern US border -- and amongst all kinds of messed-up election year rhetoric on the question -- with "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?"
I'm not sure all of what's behind it, but this year found me renewing my rocker roots, which in itself is a bit of a political act, if you ask me. And the album this year that represents all that I love about rock at its best is Riot City Blues, which channels the best of the Rolling Stones, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, New York Dolls and The Faces into a zesty roof-raiser for the modern age. And it does have at least one social statement: a killer bonus track take on John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" that reminds me of the early Clash.
And in that spirit, the act I've probably listened to most fervently this year is The Clash, who time has shown to be one of the greatest political acts of all time. Albums like London Calling, Sandinista and Combat Rock sound downright prescient these days, and the way they expanded punk into a global music (in both the styles they incorporated and the reach it gave their work). What we need is another band with such imagination and political commitment, but until then, going back to The Clash always satisfies and inspires.
I could go through a laundry list of all the other political songs this year from artists of just about every genre, as well as the cool music I dug. But I'd also like to urge everyone to do that work themselves. Just like we all need to be informed citizens and voters, we should also all realize that searching out and supporting music whose values match our own is a duty as well. That music is out there more than it has been in a long time. Let's hope in 2007 it increases and we get some songs of world-changing power.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist