Voices of a Generation: 10 Great 21st Century Protest Albums

Call them protest albums, even political albums if you absolutely must. Call them recordings that just so happen to shine a light on the state of the union, circa the early 21st century. Call them musical monuments to where we’ve been as a nation, and where we’re headed. Or just call them souvenirs from the worst eight-year detour ever. Whatever you call them, what follows are ten albums that have kept us sane, kept us awake, kept us vigilant, and kept us hopeful through the long, winding years of the Iraq War era. The Hurst Review recommends keeping the TV muted and these record spinning while election results pour in on Tuesday night.

In no implied order other than alphabetical:

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Wim Butler and his Large Band come thundering through the night with an album that sounds for all the world like some kind of gothic horror movie—only in this story, the monsters are nationalism gone amok, religion tainted by consumerism, the name of Christ misappropriated. This isn’t cynical, and it isn’t skeptical, either– this is an appeal, a plea for the preservation of religious faith from a group of true believers. A sad dirge for a nation that’s married the worst aspects of its politics and its zealotry, this album came out– not so coincidentally– during the same year as Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film There Will Be Blood, which explored many of the same themes.

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint – The River in Reverse
Costello is no stranger to withering cynicism and caustic anger, and Toussaint has written his fair share of politically-charged songs over the years, too. Here the two men stitch together seven of Toussaint’s most beloved songs and six brand new compositions, and the result is nothing short of miraculous. It’s one thing to make a celebration of American music and culture, a mournful elegy for the fallen New Orleans, or an eloquent album of political protest in the wake of the mismanaged Katrina response; what Toussaint and Costello have done here, however, is to accomplish all three feats, resulting in an album that laments what we’ve lost and celebrates what we have left, all infused with burning, righteous anger.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
The Decemberists like to dress up in 18th-century costume and write about events from hundreds of years ago, but with this album, they reveal a sly, devastating knack for tackling current events. The album’s title is taken from a Japanese folk story about love and greed and corruption– themes that inform the whole album– and it’s as riveting and as troubling a war-time album as one could ask for, even though it doesn’t really make direct reference to current world events. Instead, it works its magic through stories, parables and allegories, a darkly seductive and terrifying cycle of history and violence that shows us where we are by looking back to where we’ve been.

Green Day – American Idiot
Green Day‘s definitive statement thus far, American Idiot was one of the first and most successful albums to rail against the divisive politics and misappropriation of religious and patriotic zeal that characterized the better part of the Bush years. It sheer anger masks how complex and artful the album really is– there are liberal borrowings from The Who and the Kinks, fused with sharp pop hooks, punk grit, and rock and roll attitude, and Billie Joe’s lyrics comprise a bona fide rock opera about fear and alienation in the modern world.

Joe Henry – Civilians
The master delivers the continuation of something he started on Tiny Voices. That album was all about jaded, self-deceiving lovers, living with the wild and dangerous love of the Divine all around them, but usually settling for something far less. On that album, truth was traded for comfort, real hope for something quick and easy, and God’s grace was something so totally foreign to us that the characters seldom seemed to know it when they saw it-and when they realized what it was, they hit the ground running in the complete opposite direction. It was an album about dangerous lovers in perilous times, looking into the abyss of their own making and seeking solace in the darkness. Here, the camera pans back. The scale is larger, the characters smaller in the frame, but it’s really more of the same story. Henry’s wayward lovers– as sightless as ever– become a metaphor for a nation, an entire people gone astray. A rich, harrowing, and hopeful tapestry of song and story.

Buddy Miller – Universal United House of Prayer
One of many records here that’s culled from a number of sources, Miller’s wartime dispatch stitches together a Bob Dylan cover, some old gospel standards, frontporch country earnestness, rock and roll zeal, and an unashamedly spiritual, Christ-haunted center for an album that goes beyond sloganeering and polemics, gazing without fear into the heart of darkness and offering hope through unity, through music, and through prayers for better times.

The Roots – Game Theory
Who else but The Roots could make a hip-hop album so dark, it feels like it was left on the burner a bit too long, turning black and charred with anger and frustration. An album about race, about Katrina, about poverty, about division, this is rap’s defining voice of rage and disenchantment in the early 21st century– a Fear of a Black Planet for a new generation, though it’s actually more focused and eloquent than even that classic record.

Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Upon the release of this album, a collection of old folk tunes, one critic, evidently distressed by The Boss’ lack of topical songs, questioned whether Bruce realized that his nation was at war. Maybe he should have listened closer; aside from the two silly little narratives that bookend the album, these songs all sound as pointed now as they surely did when they were first penned, touching on universal themes of war, poverty, corruption, and hard times with an eloquence and raw grit that transcend generations. There’s really no need for heavy-handed polemics and sledgehammer sloganeering, Bruce seems to be saying; his declaration that “all foreign wars, I do proclaim/live only on blood and a mother’s pain” stings with more pathos than anything you’ll hear on the nightly news, a political rally, or a Neil Young album.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
This art rock opus is a gift of conscience and conviction, a megaphone wake-up call for a culture asleep at the wheel, and a reminder that the wickedness of the human heart is great—and love greater still. The album is political but not polemic, personal but without platitudes, a lament for a world in which truth itself is under siege but love emboldens us to fight another day. TVotR has always been rather metaphysical, and never more so than here, where their fractured poetry and impressionistic lyrics show us without telling what the wages of war can be– not so much on the battlefield as in the human heart.

Tom Waits – Real Gone
When Waits warns us “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” he doesn’t have to provide us any further information. We know good and well what happened in that barn– or at least, we know that it was something awful, and that the ghosts of our fathers’ sins rattle through the night even now, haunting us still. That’s what this album is about– the crimes of past generations and the specters of the less savory aspects of our history, reminding us that they’re far from gone and taunting us as we repeat the same old mistakes. This is an album about the painful lessons of history, both personal and political, and its spooky admonitions couldn’t be more vital during a time of war and uncertainty.


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