It was a grotesque and vastly unpleasant year for the United States, especially as a singular whole that is digested globally via damning headlines. You couldn’t even go to a Turkish soccer game as an American without facing global judgment for how we treat our citizens of color.
Domestically, the best music punted on the news and stuck to short-term solutions (go to the club on a Tuesday and just party, man). But the cable news violence did forge an important soundtrack. Here it is, presented as the 10 best protest songs of the year.
10) Lynyrd Skynyrd — “Sweet Home Alabama”
Asshole members of America’s police force need protest songs, too. And so, a Chicago Police Department good ol’ boy in blue decided to blare “Sweet Home Alabama”—a timeless Southern pride anthem—out of his cruiser’s loudspeaker during an Eric Garner protest in Chicago attended by mostly African-Americans this month. Two Americas and whatnot.
9) Sole & DJ Pain 1 — “Fire the Police”
I appreciate it when white, bearded rappers get indignant about the police and do good. It can be useless in scope and audience because the work lands at reaffirming, Fair Trade coffee shops, but that doesn’t make the exercise any less earnest and pointed.
8) The Orwells —”Who Needs You”
The loogie-hocking Chicago punks began the year with a rowdy Letterman performance that left the host in awe. When the band returned in the fall, David Letterman insisted “Who Needs You” likewise come back for an encore. The song itself is this expertly constructed Cheap Trick knockoff about futile futures and beer-shotgunning nihilism: “You better toss your bullets, you better hide your guns, you better help the children, let ’em have some fun.”
7) The Peace Poets — “I Can’t Breathe”
I don’t think this song is any good. It’s written by four slam poetry nerds and is tinged with white-guy reggae. It’s the worst, really. Except that its brevity and simplicity works outdoors in the cold, and it’s a helpful instrument to meaningful protests. It’s been performed by hundreds of good Samaritans at once, and that’s nothing to poke fun at.
6) Stick to Your Guns —”What Choice Did You Give Us?”
It’s fun when hardcore bands with a youthful fan base release songs that spell out every literal-to-a-fault lyric. On Sept. 11, 2001, I distinctly remember listening to “Boom” by nu-metal bros P.O.D. for solace. For teenagers, loud noises can be optimally cathartic.
5) The Game — “Don’t Shoot (Mike Brown)”
Everyone is on this thing, and the beat is understated and hollow but reverberating like a deep well. Game uses his children on the hook, and it’s downright hair-raising. Best of all, none of the distinct, lending voices—Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, etc.—compromises their individual style, so it’s this overloaded sundae bar monstrosity that works as a unified memo from the mainstream.
4) Migos —”Struggle”
“Everybody been through it, everybody used to it” goes the hook from hip-hop’s materialistic maestros. This one punts on the timeliness of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in favor of generalities, yet its clunky cobblestone performances from three high-volume, flashy voices is a distinctly 2014 occasion. The headlines were impossible to ignore, even if you’re an Atlanta trio that raps chiefly about selling drugs and buying designer retail with drug money. But zone out and you miss Quavo’s biting warning: “RIP to Mike Brown—I heard my n***a fuck with us / middle finger to the police, dare them n***as fuck with us.”
3) Hozier — “Take Me to Church”
This massive and sudden pop hit—the Irish singer-songwriter bailed on a small-stage Austin City Limits engagement to instead perform on Saturday Night Live in October—is an anthem penned about homophobia. Talking to Pink News this month, Hozier was clear about its targets and points: “The song is about loving somebody, and the video is about people who undermine what it is to love somebody.”
2) Yakki Divioshi — “Hands Up”
OK, we’ve checked off the all-star gathering ’round the microphone and the buttoned-up turn toward somberness from an otherwise loud crew. Here, 808 Mafia and Atlanta rapper Yakki Divioshi produce a post-Future banger that shopping carts the community urgency and unrest. It’s an all-in, abrasive gamble that pays off beautifully.
1) D’Angelo — “1000 Deaths”
The year’s fuming apex, in just under six minutes. D’Angelo baked in samples from New Black Panther Party’s Khalid Abdul Muhammad; disses at the “cracker Christ”; lyrics like “I won’t nut up when we up thick in the crunch, because a coward dies a thousand times, but a soldier dies only once”; timeless musicianship; and this crescendo of purposeful, golf club-swinging destruction because it wasn’t a good year.
Photo via MOD/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)