We do patriotism like we do truck rallies here in America—go big or go home. And so on this Independence Day we decided to dig into the most patriotic albums ever to emerge from this land of the free, home of the brave. From heartland rock to folk to hip-hop, each of these records has become synonymous with the American identity. Between their political messages, cultural nationalism, and general melting pots of sounds, we present the 10 most patriotic albums.
Following his huge major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City Kendrick Lamar came back even stronger for his second major label release To Pimp a Butterfly. Completely avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump that has crippled many musicians whom have started off with strong initial offerings, To Pimp a Butterfly was one of the most acclaimed albums of 2015, if not the most praised LP of the year. By incorporating free jazz into his work and many social themes including Pan-Africanism and racial discrimination, Lamar has created the defining protest album for the #blacklivesmatter movement. Songs like “King Kunta” and “Alright” were two of the biggest singles last year, and the latter became noteworthy for being an anthem for many protestors at Donald Trump rallies. Few recently released albums have made as much of an impact as To Pimp a Butterfly, and it’s likely that the LP will stand as one of the defining rap albums of this decade.
There are few aspects of the American music experience more important than Woodstock. A music festival with an audience around 400,000 people, Woodstock is considered the gold standard of festivals, and was one of the moments that changed pop & rock music forever. While there were many musicians who performed at the festival, including Richie Havens, The Who and Janis Joplin, one of the most glorified sets was played by the final act, Jimi Hendrix. Although his band was introduced as “The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” Hendrix told the crowd that they were now known as “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.” The most nationalistic moment of the set occurs near the end of the concert, when Hendrix plays “The Star Spangled Banner,” with his guitar. Our national anthem being played with a rock instrument may seem uncanny even by today’s standards, but back then it was unheard of. Jimi Hendrix showed that even though they were fighting the establishment, that didn’t mean you couldn’t be proud of your heritage as an American.
A song or album that is added to the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” is a whopping achievement. Very few musicians can say that their work is so important that it’s in the Library of Congress. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son,” off of Willy And The Poor Boys is one such tune that has become tantamount to American culture. “Fortunate Son” was one of the great protest songs during the Vietnam War, and although it’s a definite highlight fromWilly And The Poor Boys, the rest of the album is no slouch either. “Down on the Corner” is a simple yet powerful tune that illustrates the tale of a group of busking street musicians. Regardless of what region of the country you’re from, Willy And The Poor Boys is a master class in inspirational and diplomatic southern rock, that throws out common misconceptions and stereotypes about the bottom half of the country.
Southeastern, released in 2013, may not be the most obvious choice for a list of the most patriotic albums. Yet a lot of it subtly focuses on challenges that are quite well known to members of the American public, and the album’s style is distinctly alt-country. The majority of Southeastern including the stunning opening track, “Cover Me Up” focuses on Isbell’s experience with alcoholism. As Isbell croons the lyrics to this song, the emotion is heavy, the emotion in his voice is as figuratively deafening is a fire alarm: “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time.” Other tracks deal with issues such as the upsetting “Elephant,” which tells the story of a man whose wife is dying of cancer. “Yvette” deals with sexual abuse. All in all, Southeastern is a moving, emotional record that is one of the defining albums in new Americana music.
John Mellencamp is an artist who is distinctly part of the blue collar American culture. In addition to being on the board of the agricultural organization Farm Aid, his songs tell the story of the common people, and what it means to be from the heartland of the country. Scarecrow, released in 1985, is his most defining album over his long career. The opening track “Rain On The Scarecrow” makes a statement regarding the vanishing agrarian culture in America. Other highlights include “Small Town”, a beautiful rock anthem that stunningly portrays the core of rural America. Even the 55-second filler track “Grandma’s Theme” contributes wholeheartedly to the theme of the album. John Mellencamp’s songwriting approach can be compared to that of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Bob Seger, and Scarecrow is the pinnacle of his accomplishments.
There are few artists who are associated with the hippie counterculture quite as frequently as The Grateful Dead. And while mind-altering substances are a major part of their image, they also are very partisan and devoted to their home country. This is most evident on their 1970 masterpiece. American Beauty, which is generally considered to be one of their best albums, along with their previous release, Workingman’s Dead. Songs like “Friend of the Devil” tell the tales of the cowboy outlaw, while other tracks such as “Brokedown Palace” focus on death and dying of loved ones. While it might not seem very serendipitous to put an album with the word “American” in a list of the most patriotic albums, American Beauty’s country-fried psych-rock is a must listen to any fan of the music of the late hippie era.
Despite his recent marital issues that culminated in a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, Don McLean is still one of the great singer songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s folk rock movement. There is no better album that exemplifies the mastery of his composing ability than American Pie and its stunning title track. The main focus of “American Pie” is “The Day The Music Died” plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The song also contains allusions to World War II, sock hops, road trips, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, etc. There were few songs that had as much impact as the eight minute “American Pie” did when it was released, and this epic tune could be considered The Odyssey of all heartland folk-rock.
There aren’t many albums that have defined 1960s America quite like Bookends. This album has many tunes that have defined this quintessential era in American history including “Mrs. Robinson” (best known for being featured in the film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman) and of course “America.” Although this might not be Simon & Garfunkel’s strongest album, it is definitely their most nationalistic. “Mrs. Robinson” contains many references to fabled baseball player Joe DiMaggio, and it’s hard to imagine anything that America values more highly than it’s national pastime. In addition, The Graduate has become a part of our country’s history itself, being selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film History. Even though Simon & Garfunkel haven’t played together in some time (and with recent news of Paul Simon’s retirement, it’s unlikely they ever will,) Bookends remains an exemplary classic in patriotic albums.
Bob Dylan is the great American bard, the Shakespeare of folk rock music. There is no album that is more important in Dylan’s history than his 1965 masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited. Often considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time, Highway 61 Revisited features such classic tunes as “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” the 11-minute “Desolation Row” and of course, “Like A Rolling Stone.” This album’s impact cannot be summed up in words; it demands to be listened to. By referring to many classic American ideals and figures like Tom Thumb, Buicks and the ubiquitous Highway 61 (which stretches from Dylan’s hometown to New Orleans), Dylan has captured our spirit and the morals Americans hold so dear to our hearts. It is doubtful that Dylan will ever release an album this effective ever again, and it stands as the chef-d’oeuvre of his long career.
Born In The U.S.A. is an album that just oozes patriotism, even when its title track is one of the most subversive protest songs this county can claim. The album artwork, which features Bruce Springsteen’s back against the milieu of an American flag, is about as patriotic as it gets. Being an ‘80s rock album, this LP relies heavily on synthesizers and electronic textures in addition to its rock overtones. Similar to the previously mentioned Scarecrow by John Mellencamp, Born In The U.S.A. revolves around the blue collared American worker living in the heartland of the country. Songs like the title track, “Cover Me,” “I’m On Fire” and “Dancing In the Dark” propelled Springsteen to stardom, and a place in American history as one of the great rock and roll icons of our time.