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Best Protest Songs: 20 Political Anthems That Demand Change
Mark Henderson / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Protest Songs: 20 Political Anthems That Demand Change

Giving a voice and taking a stand, the best protest songs serve as a record of the fight against ineffective and corrupt policy-makers.

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From songs that soundtracked the civil-rights demonstrations in North America throughout the 60s the 1975’s decision to open their 2020 album, Notes On A Conditional Form, with a Greta Thunberg collaboration, music and politics have always gone hand in hand. As the best protest songs show, all it takes for a political movement to explode into the mainstream is one well-crafted tune.

Serving as a record of the fight against greedy or ineffective systems and corrupt policy-makers, these 20 best protest songs will get you in the mood to rage against the machine in no time.

20: YUNGBLUD: Parents (2019)

Mancunian punk upstart YUNGBLUD has stormed the global stage, with the anti-establishment message of songs such as Parents taking aim at almost everybody as the singer demands attention be paid to an array of social ills, among them homophobia, racism and a lack of support for mental-health issues. On top of all that, the song is built on a catchy tune that can stay in the head for days.

Released in 2019 following a collaboration with Halsey and Travis Barker (11 Minutes), Parents provoked reactions that ranged from shock to glowing delight – which is exactly what the best protest songs should do.

19: Kendrick Lamar: Alright (2015)

Striking a chord with everyone that heard it, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, was immediately hailed as a classic. The stunning musicianship of players across the record, mixed with Lamar’s incredible lyrical flow, not only captured the moment, it continues to soundtrack an era characterised by increasingly fraught political divisions.

Released as the album’s fourth single, Alright is just one of Lamar’s many excellent takes on the experience of being a person of colour in the US. Discussing nationwide police antagonism as well as looking to the struggles faced within his own community, the song leaves behind an enduring message of hope.

18: Against Me!: True Trans Soul Rebel (2015)

Having announced her male to female transition in 2012, punk-rock queen Laura Jane Grace unleashed True Trans Soul Rebel as a call to arms against the pressures of gender norms and binary social relations. A true anthem among the best protest songs of the 21st century, it proudly champions individual freedoms over oppressive cultures.

17: Green Day: American Idiot (2004)

Released just three years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Green Day’s 2004 album, American Idiot, could have destroyed the group in their homeland, but its title track catapulted the band onto bigger stages than ever, all while skewering the political discourse that was US governance in the early 2000s. Defiantly anti-war and anti-Bush, the song parodies the flaws that frontman Billy Joe Armstrong observed in North American culture, and it remains a must-hear on any list of the best protest songs.

16: Crosby, Stills, Young & Nash: Ohio (1970)

With a decades-spanning career behind him, Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young has spawned multiple albums’ worth of classic tunes, no shortage of which demand consideration among the best protest songs.

One of the first to catapult Young into the history books was Ohio. A dark, snarling electric ballad inspired by the Kent State shootings of May 1970, in which the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed students staging a peaceful protest at Kent State University, killing four, the song channels an entire nation’s anger and despair at the Vietnam War and its consequences for US citizens – both overseas and on home soil. Recognising the importance of the song, Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young rush-released it just weeks after their hit single Teach Your Children entered the US Top 20, giving the anti-war movement a new anthem to latch on to.

15: Beyoncé: Freedom (2016)

Featuring Kendrick Lamar, Freedom is a particularly powerful cut from Beyoncé’s unapologetically raw 2016 album, Lemonade; riding high on pounding drums and an emotive performance from Queen Bey, it is only elevated further by the rapper’s guest verse.

Discussing systemic racism and the unlawful deaths of many people of colour held in police custody, the song makes for an intense but brilliant listen. Within the context of Lemonade it sits perfectly between another stunning collaboration – with UK singer/producer James Blake, called Forward – as well as the soulful All Night.

14: Stormzy: Do Better (2019)

The king of grime has done his best to use his platform to promote activism, notably calling out the UK’s Conservative Party from the BRIT Awards stage in 2018, demanding accountability for the Grenfell Tower fire of summer 2017, in which over 70 people died. He has also launched a sponsorship for Black students at the University Of Cambridge, covering four years’ worth of tuition fees for two students of colour.

On Do Better, Stormzy speaks openly about his transition into fame and his struggles with mental health, and in doing so he takes a stand against the stigma placed on discussing such issues in public. As contemporary as it gets among the best protest songs, the track also offers a beautifully poignant moment on the rapper’s second album, Heavy Is The Head.

13: Bob Marley And The Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up (1973)

Boasting one of the most recognisable choruses in the world, Get Up, Stand Up has been co-opted by movements all over the world since its release in 1973, its call for honesty, truth and redemption offering hope no matter the circumstances. One of the song’s most notable uses was during the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour, during which it was performed by Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour.

12: PJ Harvey: The Words That Maketh Murder (2011)

Taken from PJ Harvey’s 2011 album, Let England Shake, The Words That Maketh Murder is a rhythmic number fuelled by the anti-war and anti-establishment lyrics Harvey began writing in the early 2010s. Her demonically possessed vocal performance further conveys the anger within the words, though it’s juxtaposed with bouncing drums that tempt the listener to dance along, assuring the track’s place among the best protest songs in history.

11: Stevie Wonder: Living For The City (1973)

Deceptively funky, Living For The City may not at first sound like a protest song, but it features some of the most direct lyrics Stevie Wonder ever penned about racism in the US. Chronicling the struggles of a young Black man trying to find work, the track follows its protagonist to New York City, where he finds himself arrested by prejudiced police officers.

Wonder played all the instruments on Living For The City himself, while his brother Calvin Hardaway Judkins provided some of the spoken-word sections towards the denouement. The result is one of the best protest songs to come from a trailblazing pioneer of 60s and 70s Black music.

10: Plastic Ono Band: Give Peace A Chance (1969)

Rough and chaotic, Give Peace A Chance was recorded during John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in for peace” honeymoon in Montreal, on 1 June 1969. Lennon’s first solo venture outside The Beatles, it immediately became an anti-war anthem, the chanted vocals and Lennon’s frantic delivery perfectly capturing the spirit of the era.

Such a simple sentiment from one of the world’s biggest songwriters was always going to be popular among the peace movements of the time, and the song peaked at No.2. on the British singles chart and No.14 on the US Billboard Hot 100,

9: Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land (1945)

The oldest song on this list of the best protest songs of all time, This Land Is Your Land has stood the test of time like no other. Released in 1945, Guthrie’s sarcastic delivery and communist ethos is one of the greatest tear-downs of the capitalist system.

Slamming private property and capitalist fat cats while observing the hunger faced by many in post-war America, This Land Is Your Land dares to dream the true American Dream: freedom and prosperity for all, instead of concentrated wealth in the hands of the few.

8: Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)

Originally releasing the song as a live poetry recital backed by conga and bongos, Gil Scott-Heron re-recorded The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with a funky full-band groove and flute lines for his 1971 album, Pieces Of A Man. Co-opting the phrase from 60s Black Power movements in the US, Scott-Heron lambasts a whole system of society built on advertisements and corruption, delivering a call to arms to those who wish to stay outside the movement: the revolution will take place on the streets and cannot be ignored.

7: Bright Eyes: When The President Talks To God (2005)

Melancholy sweetheart Conor Oberst may be best known for his emo-tinged indie-folk, but he can deliver a scathing protest song with just as much ease. Released in 2005, When The President Talks To God directly targeted the morals of then US President George W Bush, attacking his administration for their actions in Iraq and for their part in sanctioning destructive domestic policies involving prison reforms and the war on drugs.

Oberst bluntly calls out the hypocrisy of the Bush administration’s claims to act in the name of God, asking if God would really tell Bush to do what he did. With a simple jagged blues riff that channels Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, this remains not just one of the best protest songs of the 2000s, but a highlight in Bright Eyes’ discography.

6: Manic Street Preachers: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (1998)

Never known to shy away from difficult topics, Manic Street Preachers critique fascism through the lens of Welsh volunteers serving in the Spanish Civil War of the late 30s. Taking its name from an old poster calling for help in fighting the Nationalists, the song gave the group one of their biggest hits, reaching No.1 in the UK and becoming their only song to chart in North America.

5: Nina Simone: Backlash Blues (1967)

Strongly outspoken during the civil-rights movement of the 60s, and with a discography that contains her iconic version of Strange Fruit, as well as Young, Gifted And Black and the incendiary Mississippi Goddamn, Nina Simone has no shortage of contenders for inclusion in this list of the best protest songs of all time.

Sparing no punches for “Mr Backlash”, Backlash Blues finds her on ruthless form, criticising America’s involvement in Vietnam as well as its treatment of black people at home. Like most of Simone’s music, it is a powerful listen.

4: Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)

Taking inspiration from Irish folk music, Dylan penned this song in October 1963, apparently in a deliberate attempt to write an anthem for change. Released the following January, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is now, with good reason, one of his most famous songs. Its universal lyricism and beautiful simplicity allows it to be adapted to almost any demand for change, easily earning its place among the best protest songs in history.

3: Creedence Clearwater Revival: Fortunate Son (1969)

Perhaps the most famous protest song to take a stand against America’s involvement in Vietnam, Fortunate Son finds John Fogarty aiming his anger right at the heads of the US government, perfectly reflecting the feelings of those who felt that politicians were orchestrating a war with little to no public support while conscripting everyday Americans to fight halfway across the world. CCR’s focus on the hypocrisy of those in power was delivered with a ferocity that few have since matched.

2: Rage Against The Machine: Sleep Now In The Fire (1999)

After releasing their 1999 album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, Rage Against The Machine were a force like no other. Giving the middle finger to all the greed and corruption that Wall Street represents, Sleep Now In The Fire is classic Rage: Tom Morello unleashed a guitar riff that stands as one of the most iconic the 90s, while Zach De La Rocha’s howling vitriol remains completely unchallenged.

Directed by Michael Moore, Sleep Now In The Fire’s promo video found the group playing on Wall Street, in front of the New York Stock Exchange, before being arrested by the police. Adding to the song’s continued relevance is a shot of a man holding a sign reading “DONALD J TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT 2000”.

1: Childish Gambino: This Is America (2018)

Causing an immediate stir with its incredible Hiro Murai-directed music video, This Is America shocked listeners in ways that music hadn’t in years. Tackling gun violence, racism and political disillusionment, it is a testament not only to the talent of Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), but to the power of music as an avenue for raising awareness of important issues. Topping our list of the best protest songs of all time, This Is America continues to speak to the moment.

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