Many of the bands and singers are largely unknown and mostly do independent work. It is our hope that we might be introducing you to these bands and singers for the first time.
After taking time to appreciate the albums on the list, it is entirely possible you might find one of your favorite protest albums of the decade is missing. If that is the case, please share the name of it with us in the comments. We would be thrilled if this list leads to 25 more excellent protest albums, which we could feature later on in the year.
Now, please enjoy the artists on this list.
This is the album of a singer-songwriter, who has grown terribly jaded with her country. “England, you leave a taste/A bitter one,” Harvey sings on “England.” It also manages to contain some of the most pointed messages about war in modern times in recent music. “In the Dark Places,” “Bitter Branches,” and “Hanging on the Wire” build on the crestfallen mood of the album and explore the different layers of tragedy in war. “Words That Maketh Murder” is more jubilant in its darkness, and the song specifically focuses on the Afghanistan War and failure of diplomacy to stop wars. It builds to “The Colour of the Earth,” featuring Mick Harvey, which memorializes 8 million lives lost in the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, adds more poignancy to the antiwar message of the album.
Son of Afrobeat legend, Fela Kuti, leads his father’s former band on this album. On “African Soldiers,” Seun rails against African military generals who become dictators of countries in Africa. “Slave Masters” is about African governments’ relationship to their citizens, how most treat their people like slaves. “Rise” is about resisting diamond companies and corporations like Monsanto and Halliburton, who exploit Africans to get rich. And, as Seun described, most of the album is inspired by the need for Africans to take Africa for themselves. He maintains Africans should reject Western-influenced change and demand and create change by themselves.
A project of guitarist Tom Morello, many of the songs on this album were played at Occupy encampments during the rise of the movement. The title track was performed in Wisconsin as union workers took over the statehouse to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on them. On “Worldwide Rebel Songs,” he sings about taking his rebel songs to any place in the world that is rising up against injustice. “Save the Hammer for the Man” features a duet with Ben Harper and is a ballad for the powerless who toil in the struggle for freedom and justice. “It Begins Tonight” is a rousing song about taking a stand against injustice now, not later. “Speak and Make Lightning” includes some fine harmonica, as Morello sings about surviving fear in moments of trouble. Finally, on the anthem, “Union Town,” Morello’s guitar leads in to a hand-clapping rhythm that promises hell for anyone who tries to take away rights from union workers.
“I am a product of the system I was born to destroy,” Lowkey raps in the title track. The rapper of English and Iraqi descent deconstructs the moral corruption of capitalism (“Too Much”), the colonialism of military defense contractors (“Hand on Your Gun”), the true definition of terrorism (“Terrorism?”), and how electing President Barack Obama did not change US empire (“Obama Nation”). Lowkey calls attention to the plight of Palestinians (“Long Live Palestine”) and honors the struggle of women (“Something Wonderful”). Collectively, it is a radical album, which acts as a battle cry for the most marginalized people of the world.
Bruce Springsteen says he has spent much of his life “judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.” This album, which came out months after the rise of the Occupy movement, features some of Springsteen’s most explicit attempts to judge that distance. The album is about the working class people who try to get by amidst economic devastation and class warfare by the rich. “Easy Money,” “Jack of All Trades,” and, “This Depression,” are downtrodden folk songs. “Shackled & Drawn” and “Death to My Hometown” are more like Irish rebel songs. The characters of the songs may be unemployed or in between jobs, but they’re not about to give up, even as fat cats laugh at them. In fact, on “Death to My Hometown,” which features Tom Morello, the E Street Band is prepared to grab pitchforks and torches and send the robber barons straight to hell for what they have done.
Much of this album is inspired by the economic devastation brought about by Wall Street and its impact on working class Americans. Snider, who blends folk and country music, starts the album with “In the Beginning” about the start of the human race—specifically, capitalism. In Snider’s origin story, some guy has something the other guys want so they kill him and then divide up his things amongst them. On “New York Banker,” the character in the song is a teacher who put his retirement money in the stock market only to lose it and have to keep working as a teacher while a banker who swindled him and his family gets the satisfaction of making millions off him. His other songs feature unemployed or laid-off characters, who do not have an answer to their joblessness, but what they do know is they’re tired of taking this shit.
Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s critically-acclaimed album is both a celebration of the power of reggae music as well as a protest against war and poverty. “World Upside Down” is a catch-all protest song. Cliff sings, “They say the world is spinning around/I say the world is upside down. “Children’s Bread” is an allegory of predators at the top of a system stealing food from hungry children to give to the dogs. “Reggae Music” is a nostalgic look at the role reggae played in inspiring protest in the late 1960s. It also features a stellar cover of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”
The Brooklyn-based Afrobeat group comprised of ten to twelve individuals takes horns, vocals, keyboards and percussion instruments and makes music with tight rhythms. The music focuses the energy giving each lyric extra punch. “The Ratcatcher” is a sharp allegory about the War on Terrorism. A man sees rats and tries to catch the rats with traps, but he winds up trapping moles and snakes. He keeps escalating his strategy to go after rats, but in the end, he must admit, for every two rats, one hundred more will come. “Dirty Money” is a song inspired by the scourge of capitalism. Amayo hasdescribed the response to the aggressive horns on the track as a “laid-off factory worker with nothing left to lose.” Altogether, the album offers some critical commentary propped up by some incredible rhythms.
In the opening track, Brother Ali raps about embracing all of America’s flaws, even as they smother him and subject him to suffering. Much of Ali’s album explores contradictions and how America can be better. “Only Life I Know” is about being caught in the cycle of poverty, and “Work Everyday” is about not being able to escape that cycle. The daily struggle to get by is juxtaposed with the killing done in America’s name in “Mourning in America.” Ali raps, “Murder, murder, murder/kill, kill, kill/Cannibals walk the earth and get ill blood spill.” Terrorism is the “war of the poor,” and “warfare the terrorism of the rich.” Whether it is economic class warfare or wars waged abroad, life is devalued, and Brother Ali’s album is an act of resistance against such daily dehumanization.
As The Coup’s Boots Riley writes in his new book, the album is inspired by his time as a telemarketer and composed of songs that go along with a film—a “dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction” that is in production and has the same name. “Magic Clap” is an infectious song about that moment when one decides to take action, and it is Riley’s songwriting at its best. “Your Parents’ Cocaine” features Justin Sane of Anti-Flag and kazoos, and it brilliantly skewers privileged kids who can get high on cocaine and never have to fear the War on Drugs. After Occupy Oakland, Riley wrote “The Guillotine,” in which a crowd raps, “Hey you/We got your war/We’re at the gates/We’re at your door.” It is about the people being at the door of the ruling class, and ready to tear this system down.
The band, which formed near Detroit, has a sound very similar to Rage Against the Machine. Each song is heavy rock with provocative lyrics aimed at agitating the masses into resistance. On “Killin’ the Future,” the people need to rise up and take back the future from greedy capitalists. In “Police State,” an all-seeing machine exists that can suppress humanity. It is important to rise up and fight the police state. “G.I. Resistance” features poignant lyrics the horrible acts soldiers are ordered to commit in wars. “Honor the warrior, not the war/Support the warrior with G.I. resistance,” the band howls. Whether it’s economic injustice or government corruption that moves you, the time to act is now.
Hailing from Ottawa, Canada, A Tribe Called Red is a First Nations electronic music group composed of three indigenous DJs. The music combines what is known as pow wow vocals with innovative beats and rhythms. As the group states ontheir website, each track is about empowering Aboriginal youth to “defend their heritage.” Not does the group find it important that Aboriginal people express themselves, but that they also have the ability to criticize, reclaim, and educate the “spectators to racism and abuse of power experienced by Native Americans for centuries.” In that sense, the music of A Tribe Called Red is a vehicle, which enables the defense and preservation of indigenous culture.
The band is a project of former Dead Kennedys’ vocalist Jello Biafra. The album rather maniacally mocks and derides the rich and powerful in all their rich and sadistic glory. In “The Brown Lipstick Parade,” scorn is heaped on Democrats and Republicans who go to Washington to kiss ass for lobbyist money. “Werewolves of Wall Street” features some of the album’s best lyrics, as Biafra howls, “Ever since the bite that night/Money’s my life.” “White People and the Damage Done” is all about how we should not have armed jihadists to fight the Soviets. The finale, “Shock-U-Py!” is a raucous anthem for making demands of those in power and taking to the streets.
This punk band has always been known for their politically charged music. After lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in 2012, the band focused its energy on gender identity and the experience of life as a transgender person. The title track features a transgender person who wants everyone to see them like they see every other girl, but they “just see a faggot.” “Drinking with the Jocks,” in two-minutes, rages against the misogyny of bro culture while grappling with the desire to be normal. “Black Me Out” confronts resentment toward those who you no longer feel the need to impress in order to have them accept you for who you really are. “True Trans Soul Rebel” is an anthem to empower transgender persons to not feel ashamed of their identity. The confessions of self-hate along with the pledges to be one’s self and look back make the music a powerful weapon against the dehumanization of transgender people.
Music in Mali has been prohibited by Islamic militant groups, which have taken over the country. It has forced groups like Tinariwen into exile. Because of warfare and repression against musicians, the group had to flee and record this album in California’s Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree. The group, which makes desert folk and blues music, gradually picks up the pace and energy of their music with each song. Being in America made it possible to bring on American musicians, like Chavez’ Matt Sweeney, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer, Nashville session fiddler Fats Kaplin, and even known political rapper Saul Williams for an introduction to the opening track. In that sense, the whole entire album can be viewed as a protest album, a refusal to let jihadists stop the music.
The Netherlands-based band describes itself as a neoceltic pagan folk band. Their music incorporates various harps, flutes, bagpipes, and other instruments like a hurdy-gurdy, bouzouki, bodhrán, and didgeridoo. On the title track, not only do they worship Mother Earth, but they are warriors fighting for her. The band sings, “People breed disassociation/Industrial nation of elimination,” as they rail against deforestation, pollution, and genocide. “Crazy Man” responds to those who might mock these nature warriors for talking to trees and coyotes. “Free Bird Fly,” features the lyrics, “Free bird fly/Take your broken wings and learn to fly/Take this broken world and make it right.” Overall, Omnia believes in spiritual music that encourages people to free their minds and become more in tune with their place in the planet’s ecosystem.
Scottish rapper Loki’s crowdfunded concept album is a dystopian, bleak and satirical story of a journalist in a future Scotland mired in violence. Many of the rap tracks are punctuated with news broadcasts announcing developments related to the Scottish parliament, which is in ruin, the latest on the Olympics in London, or a drone that has been hijacked by terrorists. “New Glasgow” has towers for the rich. Meanwhile, the poor live in slums. In this setting, Loki raps about this reality affects the underclass’ lives, skewers people who sit around all day on “The Unimportance of Being Idle,” and touches upon various issues of politics and culture through numerous Orwellian references on this album.
Kimmortal, a Filipino immigrant based in Vancouver, makes music that is beautifully poetic and empowering. Sometimes her words come out in soulful vocals other times she is rapping about her experiences. “Blue & Orange” is about a lesbian relationship, and she is telling her lover not to let anti-gay people ruin it. With guitar punctuating her musing, she considers why it is so difficult for people to come together and live in “Peace.”
On “Ancestral Clock (Boom Bop),” she raps, “The rhythm in my people never dropped, though our bodies were left to rot/Colonized afterthoughts/Green land but dead end jobs/History repeats and now pops grips a mop.” She contemplates how poverty has kept others in her family from pursuing their art, a fate she is committed to avoid. But the most uplifting track on the album is “She.” It is an anthem for women that pays tribute to the creators, anchors, leaders, artists, and mothers in her life, and tells men they cannot erase the minds of women simply because you only respect a woman when you desire her body.
D’Angelo rushed the release of this album after Mike Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer and protest against police violence spread throughout the U.S. “The Charade,” the most accessible protest song on the album, hearkens back to the struggle of the Civil Rights movement while acknowledging how far black people still have to go to achieve justice and equality when police are gunning them down today. “Til It’s Done” reflects on one’s purpose and place in the universe. “Carbon pollution is heating up the air/Do we really know? Do we even care?” It also contains an antiwar message. “1000 Deaths” opens with quotes from assassinated Black Panther Fred Hampton and Nation of Islam member Khalid Abdul Muhammad. A coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies once.” It’s about being ready to sacrifice and suffer for the struggle.
David Rovics is a rather prolific protest singer and songwriter. He never shies away from radical analysis in his lyrics. “Breivik” confronts the reality of European racism and hate as a climate, which inspires terrorists like Anders Breivik. “Holy Land 5” calls attention to the U.S. government’s persecution of a charity, which only wanted to help Palestinians. On “Israeli Geography 101,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is skewered for not knowing where Israeli occupation ends and Palestine begins. “Meanwhile in Afghanistan” memorializes the repression, which took place in Chicago as NATO gathered to strategize about the next phase of the Afghanistan War. And, on “London is Burning,” Rovics is joined by guitarist Tom Morello. “All you need is some injustice to make your cities burn/All you need is the perception whether or not it’s true/That most us will never live like you.”
Through this album, Kendrick Lamar simultaneously explores the evolution of himself as a rapper while at the same time placing his rise to prominence in a social context. The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” seems to juxtapose the exploitation of black artists by the music industry to the exploitation of black people by Uncle Sam. “Institutionalized” is about the desire to escape the ghetto before the hood brings you down.
“Hood Politics” compares gangs in Compton to gangs in Congress, with Lamar rapping, “Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans.” “How Much a Dollar Cost” showcases Lamar’s storytelling abilities as he describes meeting a homeless man, who he treats as a crack addict before he realizes it is God. Finally, one of his more hard-hitting raps on the album is “The Blacker the Berry,” which deals with self-hatred and the criminalization of black bodies. As he raps at the end, “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?/Hypocrite.”
Downtown Boys was founded by lead singer Victoria Ruiz, and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco. Ruiz works for Demand Progress, and DeFrancesco is a labor organizer. “Why is it that fear always wants us to go looking for more? So when people are brown, people are smart, white hegemony wants us to go looking for this third thing!” Ruiz yells in the intro to “Monstro.” In this song, a saxophone plays as the music builds. Ruiz then delivers a verse in Spanish lyrics and launches into a chorus, which includes, “She’s brown! She’s smart!” This embodies the ethos of Downtown Boys. On other tracks, like “Wave of History,” the Downtown Boys are intent on creating history through resistance to economic injustice, racial oppression, and imperialism (as their music video shows).
As Ruiz said in an interview for Impose, “Punk as an aesthetic and individualistic lifestyle means nothing. Punk as an ethics or collectivism, anti-oppression, and action can and should imbue everything from the stage to the picket line, but we have to make it mean that.” While still making good punk music with quality aesthetics, Downtown Boys creates songs with this politically-charged ethos.
Grace Petrie & The Benefits Culture is a wonderful British folk-punk outfit that deserves to be more widely recognized. “If There’s a Fire in Your Heart” is a simple song about finding that spark within you to take a stand. “You Pay Peanuts You Get Monkeys (You Pay Nothing You Get Nowt” is about the worthless Labour Party, which is a miserable failure to poor and working class Brits.
Similarly, “Whatever’s Left” is about welfare programs being in shambles. “I Do Not Have the Power to Cause a Flood” is a whimsical song about washing away homophobia and anti-gay bigotry in Russia, Uganda, and British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson. The playfulness continues on “Revolutionary in the Wrong Time,” as Petrie sings about being a revolutionary singer “in the wrong time and the world ain’t changin’ for me.” Altogether, it’s a spirited collection of anthems for anyone trying to weather the decline of the social safety net in their country.
There are few alternative punk projects, which sound as good as this band when they rail against the state of the world. The band is led by Conor Oberst, known for his work with Bright Eyes. “MariKKKopa,” which takes aim at racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is stark presentation of how Arpaio and his supporters seek to cleanse towns in Arizona of Latino immigrants to keep communities white and pure. “Golden Parachutes” takes on casino capitalism, as Oberst sings, “They’re all betting men who never lose/And float away on golden parachutes.” In “Slacktivist,” people who click their thumbs and think they’re engaging in activism are scorned. Finally, it ends with an anthem inspired by Anonymous. “We know what Big Brother did/We’re the Tattletale/We’ll see your All-Seeing Eye in Hell,” the band wails.
Backed by the Promise of the Real, which features Willie Nelson’s son, the album builds on Neil Young’s history of blasting corporatization. The single, “Rock Starbucks,” received quite a bit of press for its explicit and boisterous anti-GMO message. Young sings, “I want a cup of coffee/But I don’t want a GMO,” and, “Like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.” It also has an even more brilliant track, “People Want to Hear About Love,” which skewers the idea that music should not be political by rattling off a litany of problems and injustices music executives would rather not hear mentioned in songs. The message in this album is far from subtle, and that’s intentional.