The 50 Best Protest Songs of All Time

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The 50 Best Protest Songs of All Time

It’s been said that music can change the world. Some might denounce that as exaggeration, but at minimum, music does have the power to stir emotions and bring attention to worthy causes. Over the decades, protest songs have led the way, offering a powerful and passionate testimony to those suffering, while urging listeners to lend support and solidarity in response.

There is no shortage of great protest songs—in fact, we’ve covered Canada-specific protest songs from their last tumultuous election, contemporary protest songs by people of color, protest songs that are anti-fascist and more. In these trying times, we’ve attempted to distill some of these best protest songs of all time, so here are 50 that have impacted our collective consciousness.

50. Green Day, “American Idiot”
The title track of their 2004 album “American Idiot” ushered Green Day into the 21st century with the pop punk snark of their youth with the anger of the Bush era. The album opens, “Don’t wanna be an American idiot / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind-fuck America.” A direct response to the nation’s deteriorating international perception and its internal hysteria in response to 9/11, “American Idiot” looked inward and outward simultaneously and cemented Green Day’s legacy in the history of punk. —Hilary Saunders

49. Bright Eyes, “When the President Talks to God”
Originally released as a digital download in 2005 and later released as the B-side to the “First Day of My Life” 7”, this Bright Eyes song encapsulated the anti-Bush sentiment. When the Commander in Chief was invading countries that didn’t have anything to do with the attacks on September 11 and allowing domestic issues like poor education funding and drug addiction to run rampant, Conor Oberst imagined a conversation between the drawling Texan and the Holy Father above. Although Oberst performs the song solo acoustic, his rage, and those of America’s, is palpable. —Hilary Saunders

48. USA for Africa, “We Are the World”
Written by Michael Jackson and recorded by a veritable supergroup of popular performers—Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte and Cyndi Lauper to name but a few—the record was intended as way to draw attention to the dire famine epidemic that was sweeping the African continent. It quickly hit No. 1 and served its purpose, conveying a meaningful message that relief was needed to avoid further catastrophe. —Lee Zimmerman

47. “Draft Morning,” The Byrds
Striped down to a trio following the firing of outspoken singer/guitarist David Crosby and the on-again, off-again departure of singer Gene Clarke, the reconstituted Byrds regrouped as a trio consisting of Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke as they cut the remarkably diverse The Notorious Byrd Brothers. This song, culled from that set, was originally written by Crosby and usurped by McGuinn and Hillman over Crosby’s objections. Nevertheless, it details the horrors faced by a young draftee as he comes to grip with the visceral images of combat and calamity. —Lee Zimmerman

46. Richard Fariña, “Birmingham Sunday”
Written in response to the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 that killed four young girls who were inside at the time, the song assured Fariña’s ascent in early ‘60s protest circles, a trajectory that found him rivaling Dylan in terms of his folk following. Tragically, Fariña was killed in a motorcycle accident in Carmel California in 1966, but his songs continue to resonate in today’s singer/songwriter circles. Plainsong’s recent tribute, Reinventing Richard, is merely the latest example. —Lee Zimmerman

45. Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman”
Don’t let Australian-American Helen Reddy’s sweet voice wavering over an audibly-‘70s acoustic guitar strum fool you: “I Am Woman” is a fighting song. Written during and for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, the song has endured from its release through Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. And in the wake of the Women’s March on Washington (and all of its international subsidiaries), the opening line “I am woman, hear me roar / in numbers too big to ignore” illustrates just how far we’ve come in terms of gender equality, yet how much further we need to go. —Hilary Saunders

44. U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
U2’s immortal anthem quickly became one of the most popular songs, as Bono and the band took their protest up several notches in response to tragic events of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday massacre. Its relentless wail and refrain leaves a lingering impression. —Lee Zimmerman

43. Donovan, “Universal Soldier”
Written by Buffy Sainte-Marie but brought to prominence by Donovan during his early folkie phase, no single song better detailed the plight of the conscripted soldier or career mercenary than this mid ‘60s lament about the perils of war and the devastating effects it leaves in its wake. The song makes the point that borders are meaningless when it comes to those in the front lines, and that all those who fight their nation’s battles remain mere pawns in a futile struggle. —Lee Zimmerman

42. Against Me!, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
The title track of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues cuts right to the chase after Laura Jane Grace’s highly publicized tale of coming out as transgendered in 2012. Here, the songwriter gives every bit of grit she’s been known for with heartbreaking line after line: “You want them to notice/ The ragged ends of your summer dress/ You want them to see you like they see any other girl/ They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” With an inbox stacked with albums retelling tales of lost love, sometimes recorded in cabins; or musings on the human condition; or on weirder days, food, Grace’s gutting honesty on this not-so-universal experience is the realest thing I’ve heard in…I really couldn’t tell you how long . —Tyler Kane

41. The Youngbloods, “Get Together”
The song, meant as a salve during one of the most divisive times in American history (present day circumstance notwithstanding), was a populist take on a folk song written by Dino Valenti, later of Quicksilver Messenger Service. An appeal for unity in a polarized world, it offers the option of choosing love over hate, brotherhood rather than animosity, the impassioned refrain resonates even today. —Lee Zimmerman

40. The Impressions, “People Get Ready”
Penned by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by the band he belonged to at the time, “People Get Ready” foretold a turn in the tide as far as the battle for equality and recognition were concerned. Sung like the revered gospel song it is, it uses the popular imagery of a train to describe an evolution in attitude and action leading to greater glories for those who have been oppressed and pushed aside. A true standard in every sense, it hit the top of the charts on its original release, and has been covered by scores of artists since, with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart among the many. —Lee Zimmerman

39. Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers”
By 1967, Jefferson Airplane had shifted its flight path dramatically, moving away from the folk sounds that inspired them early on into the realms of psychedelia and the bold embrace of the Summer of Love. By 1969, with the release of the Volunteers album, they were firmly caught up in the political discord that wracked the world, and America in particular. This song sets the pace with a furious marching rhythm and a clarion call for the disenfranchised to rally for rebellion. The final clarion cry, “Up against the wall, motherfuckers,” made it clear there was no other choice. —Lee Zimmerman

38. Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”
After the release of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980, Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra noticed that much of his lyrical satire was being taken literally as an influx of neo-Nazis started infiltrating their shows. Incredibly incensed by this unanticipated and unwelcome turn of events, his direct response was to write the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” release it as the lead single for their follow-up album In God We Trust, Inc., and include a free armband in the 7” single that featured a crossed-out swastika (a symbol which was also used on the vinyl’s label sticker). While many of the verse’s lyrics are specific to the anti-Nazi movement within the early punk subculture, the song’s simple chorus (“Nazi punks, Nazi punks, Nazi punks, FUCK OFF!”) is a cathartic refrain whose evergreen employment never falls out of use. —Will Hodge

37. Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction,”
This Dylan-esque P.F. Sloan cover warned of the world’s demise back in 1965. McGuire name-drops everything from “Red China” to “Selma, Alabama” and calls out, “senators [who] don’t pass legislation / And marches alone can’t bring integration” and still managed to became a No. 1 hit. —Hilary Saunders

36. Sly & The Family Stone, “Everyday People”
Years before Sly Stone’s drug addiction and enigmatic persona fully materialized, he was changing the way people viewed soul and pop music from a musical, cultural and racial standpoint. On Stand!, Sly & the Family Stone achieved a near-perfect balance, especially with songs like “Everyday People” that represented a movement toward racial equality. —Max Blau

35. Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
Initially banned from numerous radio stations, the ode to birth control broke down major barriers for women—enabling them to stand up for their reproductive rights in ways never before imagined. The first oral contraception had been formerly introduced in 1960, and it assisted heartily in the women’s rights movement. Lynn hints at her own personal life in the song, and she has had enough of getting pregnant every year. From her 1975 album Back to the Country, she’s now ready and able to make “up for all those years.” It’s quirky, clever and uplifting, as she marvels in her newfound sense of freedom. “Mini-skirts. Hot pants. And a few little fancy frills,” she lists off, antsy for all the trendy fashions she’ll now be able to wear. Later, she smirks, “And you can’t afford to turn it down ‘cause you know I’ve got the pill.” —Jason Scott

34. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
One of the hit singles off of Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” has become an anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is often chanted as BLM protests to capture pride in the face of incredible, unrelenting adversity. The song itself narrates the experience of a black American male—much like Lamar—on the streets of Compton, where he grew up. This song, as well as the rest of TPAB is rife with references of gangs, prison, institutional racism and unwarranted police violence. “Alright” also finds ways to pull out silver linings and prime diverse communities to fight. As Lamar sings on “Alright”, “When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga/ When our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go, nigga?’/And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga / I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow, but we gon’ be alright.” —Alexa Peters

33. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, “Born in the U.S.A.”
I once had an in-class debate with the program director of my graduate school course about whether or not “Born in the U.S.A.” is a protest song. This was in England, so maybe they didn’t get it, but Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 Grammy award-winning hit is undoubtedly a protest song. Although musically rousing thanks to that sweet keyboard synth, the subversive lyrics actually tell a story about the Vietnam conflict and its lasting personal, political and industrial ramifications at home and in that “foreign land.” —Hilary Saunders

32. Peter, Paul and Mary, “If I Had A Hammer”
One of the leading groups of the early ‘60s, Peter, Paul and Mary took inspiration from old-timey folk groups and reinvigorated it with pop harmonies fitting for the day. This cover of an old Pete Seeger tune was one of the many hits off the trio’s self-titled 1962 debut album. —Hilary Saunders

31. James Brown, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
It doesn’t matter what color your skin is; we can all appreciate the sentiments of James Brown’s classic civil rights anthem. He howls, “Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice / Some say it’s a lot of nerve / But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve.” It’s a sentiment still resonant today. —Bonnie Stiernberg

30. Little Steven & Artists Against Apartheid, “Sun City”
Siding themselves with an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, Steve Van Zandt and an ad hoc group of players dubbed the Artists Against Apartheid took a firm stance against a racist regime in South Africa. It’s an anthem that railed against those who would play at the country’s major entertainment complex, dubbed Sun City. Scores of big name artists took part in the recording, including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, U2, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Pete Townshend and Joey Ramone, just to name a few. Although the song only climbed to the middle reaches of the pop charts, it did manage to raise more than a million dollars for the cause. —Lee Zimmerman

29. Country Joe and the Fish, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag (The Fish Cheer)”
One of the highlights of Country Joe’s memorable appearance at Woodstock, the profanity laced “Fish Cheer” represented a generation’s disdain and frustration with the politicos who sent America’s sons to fight futile wars without regard for the loss of life. It’s one, two, three, four, what are we fighting for? I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” The band’s dark humor notwithstanding, it foretold the the doom and despair many a young conscripted soldier felt when their draft board summoned them for military service. —Lee Zimmerman

28. M.I.A., “Paper Planes”
M.I.A. has stated that the gunshot and cash register sound effects on this Kala track are supposed to be a statement about how immigrants are perceived by mainstream society. We’ll admit to doing the little gun motion while jogging down empty streets, though. —Bonnie Stiernberg

27. Ani DiFranco, “To The Teeth”
Ani DiFranco, a regular and beloved visitor to the Paste Studio in NYC, has never been one to shy away from politics over the course of her 20 studio albums (and counting). One of the most outspoken activists and feminists in the musical community (her own independent record label is called Righteous Babe, after all), DiFranco bears all in this ballad response to the massacre at Columbine High School. —Hilary Saunders

26. Sleater-Kinney, “Entertain”
Despite punk’s general embrace of social progressiveness, there aren’t nearly as many women in the genre’s upper echelons as there are men. However, the ones that are there definitely make sure that their voices are heard, especially the women of Sleater-Kinney. Though the band had been putting out amazing albums like Dig Me Out and One Beat before 2005, that year saw the release of their then-final record The Woods, their most sprawling and ambitious effort, yet. “Entertain,” the first single from the album tackles feminism and media control, as well as a reference to 1984. —Adam Nizam

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