While it’s up for debate as to whether or not music will get better under an unpopular administration (since there’s not much else to get our hopes up these days), there’s already a wealth of performers taking a stand, whether it’s with their art, actions or both. Paste asked 10 artists to open up about their favorite political albums and their experiences with the ongoing upheaval in the U.S. and the U.K. Here they are, in their own words, about their favorite music of social import.
1. Adia Victoria
I received [Nina Simone’s Black Gold] as a birthday gift last year when I turned 30. I already loved Nina, but this was the first time I listened to album all the way through. This past winter, my sister and our friends went out camping at Black Mountain, N.C. We rented out a cabin on the river and spent all day exploring the grounds and wading in the river. That night we built a fire and bundled together in blankets on the living room. I put on Black Gold and Nina and her band filled the room and floated out over the whole night. She grew up quite near to Black Mountain in Tryon. As children, my sister and I lived a half hour down 26 from Tryon in Campebello, S.C. I thought of how the world sought to make us feel as small and insignificant as possible. And in the dark, Nina’s voice reigned square in the face of every odd stacked against her.
It’s an album that has been constantly reminding me to stay true to myself and my story…To quote Nina herself, “I am civil rights.” This election hasn’t suddenly awakened me to sudden truths. I’m black. We’ve been known shit’s fucked. I’m not an activist; I am an artist. I’m simply recording my human experience in the times in which I live, while trying to remain as honest as possible.
2. Hayden Thorpe (Wild Beasts)
We set up a studio in the small town we grew up in, just 18-year-olds with a studio in a cupboard. We were working day jobs to fund it, and I was working in this warehouse and I discovered Marvin Gaye and the album What’s Going On and just gradually began to think it was the masterpiece it is. For me, I was working this dead-end job that I hated and I had this kind of misplaced romance for that kind of Depression-era Detroit and Vietnam-era America. It was that kind of 18-year-old romanticism, thinking, “Okay, this resonates with me.” It’s just a record about the general frustrations of living under the weight of that.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is so incredible. Musically, that’s such a beautiful song, and also, what’s so amazing about it is it’s so conversational. The lyrics are so conversational, he’s just speaking it. That song has my favorite bassline as well. Just that line, “Rockets, moon shots, spend it on the have nots.” I’ve always wanted to do a song with brackets in because of that, as well. It’s just Marvin Gaye during that whole era, the political angle here, and just the whole story of him reinventing himself, growing the beard and no longer conforming to presentable Motown style. Our whole career has been a botched job of trying to imitate badly some kind of Motown sense. The songwriting on that album is insane. The arrangements are quite lavish and ornate, but built around these quite simple little songs.
How do you put political agendas in an unsqueamish way? How do you remove the soapbox and still speak from the heart? I think it’s a good way of doing that, it’s a heartfelt album, it’s not an album that’s trying to outsmart you. It remains as relevant as ever, in ways. The same grievances haven’t disappeared.
In Britain, I grew up with a sense of belonging as a European, and once that’s taken from you, you feel violated, somehow lesser, like you’ve lost a part of yourself. It’s a breakup, it’s an exit, it’s a goodbye. Any human making a forced goodbye, makes that goodbye in a very begrudging and ugly way. Any forced goodbye, it’s not allowed for the right conversations to take place. We flew to America on the day of Brexit, and I remember people being in the airport-because people in airports are normally the kind of people who are open to the world, like we’re getting on a plane, we’re going to fly elsewhere in the world-and there was just this sense of bewilderment and confusion. It’s funny, when you all go through a breakup together. That was a tough day. I had the same sensation when we landed in California [right before the election] and the open-minded, tolerant people were saying “It’s going to be okay.” My optimism is so bruised right now, I don’t really think it is going to be.
It’s probably an eternal question for humanity: “What’s going on?” Before English was a language, there were probably people saying it in primitive languages, “What’s going on?” or variations of “What the fuck is going on?” Betrayal and confusion are a very human sensation. Considering it was made in the ‘70s and the same racial issues, the same kind of financial grievances, the same kind of environmental issues, still there. We’re talking about a historical album. The different people saying then “What’s going on?” and people saying it in primitive languages is now that we are now a supremely advanced species that just doesn’t have historical excuses for it to go this way. It’s already been this way and we know what happened. There’s no excuse for it to go back.
There’s a documentary about Marvin when he was in Belgium, it’s really beautiful. It’s the wilderness years of Marvin, when he had a breakdown and kind of disappeared and had his addictions. They sent him to Belgium to try and revive him. It’s just crazy seeing Marvin Gaye kind of running along this winter beach of the North Sea, and being in Belgium with all these sailors in this port town. They’re not recognizing this global star, Motown legend. That’s really a beautiful watch. It’s very fitting that we’re now in our wilderness years. We have now officially entered the wilderness and it’s about the comeback now. If you think about our heroes we miss-Cohen, Bowie, Prince-they were the masters of the comeback. They were the guys who released a shitty piece of work and came back five years later with a new hairstyle and a new way of making music. We’re kind of waiting on that kind of inspiration to move on with us. I think there will be a comeback, I just hope we don’t have to come back from too far.
Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young…addresses personal politics—vulnerability & accountability in black male culture. These topics don’t get addressed much within the African American community. It inspired me so much to hear songs addressing these issues. It was incredibly influential during the writing process for my album Life & Livin’ It. George Clinton always knows how to turn my frown upside down.
I discovered Funkadelic when I was 13 years old. I saw them at The Smokin’ Grooves Tour in Ohio that summer. The show changed my life. In my 20s, I spent so much time studying Funkadelic and Parliament records. It taught me to be unafraid. It gave me the confidence to be myself and shed my insecurity. Funkadelic were weird black kids and I could relate to that.
I like to write about my experiences because it helps me connect with people. Connection is the reason why I do this. My life story is political so, yes, I won’t be surprised if my songs become more political. My message is love, joy and positive energy. You can’t really appreciate those things unless you accept and face your demons.
4. Emily Maxwell (Daddy Issues)
It’s not overtly political in a literal sense, as it’s actually about a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, but David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. I listened to it again recently and realized how applicable it is to the world we’re living in right now, which seems to inch closer and closer to the apocalypse every day.
I listened to it in my late teens when I was starting to get into Bowie’s catalogue for the first time, probably six or seven years ago. I didn’t spend as much time on it initially as I did his other albums, but have grown to like it more and more as I’ve gotten older.
It didn’t immediately spring to mind after the election but I’ve revisited it quite a bit in the last few weeks. In the past several months (since election day, really) I’ve listened to a lot of Tacocat, PWR BTTM, Solange, Beyoncé and other music I find comforting and inspiring like The Replacements and The Smiths.
I don’t know that [my music will] ever be overtly political, but I definitely feel that it’s important to be as vocal as possible right now and that everyone should do what they can to do as much good as they can with the platform they have.
5. Jake Ewald (Modern Baseball; Slaughter Beach, Dog)
When I was a kid, I got my parents to buy me the Rock Against Bush CD (they’re pretty liberal so they gladly obliged) and I listened to it constantly. I think I just saw it in Target and thought it was so cool that somebody would put together a whole album about how terrible the current president was. I didn’t know much about politics then, so it was kind of helpful to learn about social issues in a fun format like that. Also, as I got older, I realized that a lot of the bands on that comp were really influential for bands I ended up getting attached to.
Around that time I was still pretty new to punk and I had just recently switched from playing cello in the school orchestra to playing electric bass on my own. I think hearing those songs helped me see how hyper-relevant punk could be and how that makes it such an interesting and ever-evolving genre. That was one of the things that really sold me on sticking with guitar and bass and eventually starting to write songs.
We found out about the [30 Days, 30 Songs] project when Death Cab released their song, and our manager reached out to someone on their team to get the lowdown and see if there was any way we could contribute something. We were all stoked beyond belief when we got to release our song a couple days before the election. We’ve never really been a political band, but we always speak our minds pretty freely in our songs, so I feel like it’ll be difficult to write songs that aren’t political over the next four years. Getting to play to larger audiences has been really cool for us, but it’s also important to remember that with that kind of attention, we have a responsibility to make as much of a positive impact as we can. And it’s awesome to be on a label like Run For Cover that gets that and finds its own ways to give back.
6. Karl Kuehn (Museum Mouth, Family Bike)
From an overtly political standpoint, I’d probably have to say A Crow Left of the Murder by Incubus. It probably sounds cheesy to say, but the two most political songs on that album, “Megalomaniac” and “Talk Shows On Mute,” both got videos and at the time I was 13 or 14, living in rural North Carolina, and music videos were my life. I think that’s usually around the age most kids start really questioning things and rebelling the most. Floria Sigismondi directed both those videos, and in the one for “Megalomaniac,” you can tell just from the way it’s all stylized and shot that George W. Bush is/was a bad man. Those visuals paired with the lyrics got me questioning politics and government for the first time in my pitiful red state life. Then the video for “Talk Shows On Mute” came out right around the same time I was reading a bunch of Orwell for my 8th grade English class (lol) so I was very, very into it. The idea of this police state 1984/Animal Farm-type world seemed so terrifying and real to me. [This year,] with a candidate as despicable as Donald Tr*mp in the running, I found myself listening to “Megalomaniac” and comparing the hate Brandon Boyd must have felt for George W. to my boiling hate for Tr*mp…and I guess maybe understanding it better.
I know a lot of people would argue that “politics are personal,” and in that regard, I think Perfume Genius’ Too Bright would be my favorite personally political album. Too Bright is a super powerful record that I think gave many queer people who had been dealing with feelings of suppression and otherness a voice. You don’t have to be as easy to read as Green Day circa American Idiot to make a statement, especially a political statement. Sometimes it’s easier to just talk about how something affects you than to speak on it, ya know?
I wanna write a song that’s literally just me singing, “Fuuuuuuuuck Doooonnnnaallld Truuuuuuump” over farm animals screaming and swords crashing. Music is such a wild thing. If you can use your creative output for good, why wouldn’t you? I love all the bands and labels donating to various charities all across the board right now. It sucks that it took a racist, ableist, bigot, rapist actually getting elected to this country’s highest office to remind folks that charities are a thing, but at least people are donating. And I guess the very least you could do as a musician right now is write a song that actually means something to you and therefore possibly someone else.
7. Jess Weiss (Fear Of Men)
The lyrics [to Pulp’s Different Class] are sensational. They’re extremely relatable and poetic, capturing snapshots of everyday, downtrodden life in a manner similar to Philip Larkin, but without the misogyny. “Mis-Shapes” is a song celebrating intelligence and individuality but also the perils of expressing them. The line “You could end up with a smack in the mouth just for standing out” chimes with the cultural climate of Brexit—when Gove announced pre-referendum “Britain is sick of experts” (warning of the economic collapse Brexit could cause) to rapturous applause, and Trump becoming the least qualified President ever, this feels particularly relevant. There’s a violent anti-intellectual/left streak which is making itself known.
It’s a record about the conflict between maligned sections of society rioting to assert themselves in the face of an uncaring establishment, and the sensitive people crushed in the fray. It’s a fantastic pop album, but it also captures so much more about ‘90s post-Thatcher Britain, much of which seems scarily close today. I find the attention to detail in the lyrics and storytelling hugely appealing, as well as the ambition to talk about important subjects through a pop prism, so it’s a record that makes me feel excited about songwriting as a craft, and I share some of those intentions, but the music Fear Of Men makes is pretty different.
While the world’s falling apart, I’ve been writing more than listening to music. It’s felt like a way to process the feelings of helplessness, anger and disappointment that I’m sure a lot of us are experiencing. I’ve also been wrapping myself up in a protective layer of warm reverb, with Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill in my headphones more often than not. I’m engaged in politics in my everyday life, and everything seems to be hitting a more dire trajectory, so I assume some of that will filter into my songwriting. I write pretty intuitively, so whatever I’m feeling will come out some way, whether that manifests as sadness, anger or overtly political comment.
8. Charlene Kaye (San Fermin, KAYE)
The day after Trump won, I first listened to [Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On] front to back, because I had this feeling of insurmountable darkness of what was going to happen. Listening to the album really put this current issue into a broader historical context for me. It helps to remember that this isn’t the first time America has gone through tumultuous conflict, and it’s not the first time Americans have felt terrified about what’s to come. I think the reason that this album was so ahead of its time is that he was criticizing global warming before people were really talking about it as urgently as they are now, and to hear him sing about police brutality back in the 1970s is every bit as relevant as it is now. That album is from the point of view of a Vietnam War vet returning to his country and not recognizing it. I think a lot of people woke up last Wednesday morning and did not recognize the country that they love. Friends of mine that I talked to the day after, it was amazing how we all felt like we were grieving a death. In a way, we were grieving the death of maybe an idea of a country that was inclusive and generous and kind and maybe grieving that we don’t recognize now a country that’s led by someone who spews so much hate and so much racist rhetoric and has actually exploited people’s fear for his own benefit.
The other one is System Of A Down’s Toxicity. I love this album so much, I listened to it growing up with my sister in the car. It’s crazy, they released it a week before 9/11 and it was analyzed in a totally new light after that happened. The song “Chop Suey” is so catchy, and I love it for how bonkers it was, with the twin electric lead guitars and the distortion and the crazy parts, but when you read into the lyrics, you realize it’s actually about suicide bombers and what might happen if the U.S. bombed Afghanistan. The verses are so crazy, but the chorus is epically sad. That whole album is incredibly political, they talk about the prison system and they explore the philosophies of Charles Manson. They’re able to write about these really heavy, socially conscious political topics, but still make it catchy as fuck.
I would listen to those records just out of how much I love the music, but now I need them. I need to listen to them in order to make sense of what’s happening, to feel less alone. I think the best kind of music does that, it aids us when we’re in pain and speaks to exactly what we’re feeling at the time. Any music is a testament to how good the writing is that they’ve endured, and endured through many different crises and as history continues to unfold.
[Putting out my own anti-Trump song] felt really cathartic, I think it channels a lot of the rage and the anger and frustration that I’d been feeling for a long time, that I think other people had been feeling too. I think there’s a sense of optimism, but when the candidate is basically a racial and religious arsonist—and unapologetically so—it becomes really hard to abide by. I think it’s taken on a whole life after he’s won, which is sort of interesting. I don’t think it’s the last protest song that we’re going to hear under his administration.
9. Leanne Ratcliffe (Lea Lea, !!!)
This is tough to nail down as I’d say that I have a political playlist of songs that inspire me—so anything from “Fight The Power” (Public Enemy) to “Land Of The Free?” (Pennywise), “Water Get No Enemy” (Fela Kuti), “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Gil Scott-Heron), “Bad Girls” (M.I.A.) and “They Don’t Care About Us” (Michael Jackson). I think if I had to choose an album, then it would be Rage Against The Machine’s self titled, as I think it inspired me not just in its political message but in its energetic sound. I’ve always wanted to be conscious regarding the music I write but I also want people to party to it; I think Rage are the pioneers of this.
I was super young when this album dropped, so I discovered it later, when I was in my rebellious early teens exploring rock with my older bro. For me, it was awesome to find my genre loves, hip-hop and rock, combined so successfully. I think Zack de la Rocha’s political message underscored with an explosive energetic production makes it powerfully accessible. This balance I feel makes the audience think but not feel alienated, allowing them to connect, unify and hopefully be inspired to make positive change. Rage’s music also feels like such a release—almost an expression of built up frustrations/pressures let loose. Again, I think that’s due to the political message/energetic production ratio. It came out over 20 years ago and yet it’s still totally relevant politically as well as in its sound.
World affairs, equality, and human rights are personally important to me; I can only write about what I feel impassioned by, so as long we live in an unfair world, you can expect more politically-based music. Music and art have always excelled to [their] finest in the midst of social decline, so whilst trying to play my part in helping the fight for equality, I’m also excited to hear/see the artistic expressions released during the next couple of unpredictable years. I feel the balance of escapism and political activism is absolutely essential in music-it’s the one thing in life every being connects to. As the world increasingly heads towards separatism, I’m hoping the arts will help in bringing the puzzle back together.
10. Jennifer Clavin (Bleached)
When I was in high school, I bought the double disc of Christ—The Album by Crass on CD. I would listen from front to back while reading through the little book that came with it about politics, religion, sexism and so many extreme ideas that I had never thought of before. It was scary and refreshing. I loved it.
Musically, Crass’ bass lines and the military style drum beats are very inspiring. My first punk band was very political. So at a young age, this album inspired me to write very expressive lyrics and to speak my mind. I’m glad I grew up on Crass records because that stuff sticks with you forever.
I did two cover songs post-election to raise money for Planned Parenthood. The songs I chose were “Eve Of Destruction” (originally recorded in 1965) and “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg” (recorded in 1985). Both songs are still very relevant. One is about the fascist, racist, unjust world they were living in. Sadly, that’s what we are living in now. The other speaks of how embarrassed, offended, and disgusted they were for their president. A lot of us feel that way when we see Trump. It is depressing to me that a political song from the ‘60s can feel so relevant today, 50 years later.
I see a lot of people becoming more political with their music. I can imagine a recommencement of the activism seen in the ‘60s. It is really important that people continue to speak up. We all became so comfortable with the state of the world, and unfortunately we are backtracking. I thought of all the musicians that rely on sexist and racist lyrics and whether or not they will change their direction. Hopefully they can stop encouraging that type of behavior.