The 10 best political albums of 2017
By Mat Ward
Over the years, it's often been hard to find enough political music to fill this monthly column. But this year, as Donald Trump became US president, it seemed every artist suddenly wanted to call themselves political. Here, we highlight those who truly had something to say.
1. A.D. CARSON - OWNING MY MASTERS
Because its quality and intelligence was astounding for a rookie rapper.
On February 14, dance and punk music star Moby claimed Washington insiders had showed him documents that could impeach Donald Trump. Days later, African American PhD student A.D. Carson presented his doctoral dissertation as a rap album, featuring the track "Impeach The President". The well-produced album is packed with powerful political poetry and pulls no punches, even taking down his university's racist history in the bold "See The Stripes". Surprisingly, at least some of his tutors already seemed to approve of the project before he was up to defend it on February 24. Some may be sceptical about its huge 34 tracks, but there's not a dud song on it. Others may dismiss it as a gimmick, but its quality was way up there with February's new albums from big political rappers such as Lupe Fiasco and Wyclef Jean, whose new long player included the track "If I Were President". LISTEN>>>
2. VARIOUS ARTISTS - OUR FIRST 100 DAYS
Because this giant compilation summed up the huge resurgence in political music under Trump.
On May 1, as US workers marked International Workers' Day with protests against the anti-worker policies of president Trump, a huge protest album was released to mark his first 100 days in office. An honorary Australian on the album was Jen Cloher, who said: "It's always tricky writing about another country's politics, but it’s important to see world politics as a global issue. Australians will be affected by Trump's presidency." Days later, US country singer Brandi Carlile released a charity album of covers of her songs by big stars, inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis. But by far the biggest "star" on it was Trump's presidential predecessor, Barack Obama. He wrote the liner notes, saying Carlile "reminds us that, together, we can build for our children a more just, peaceful world". It's the kind of free publicity that will let him keep raking in $400,000 speaking fees. Yet the clear majority of the 20,000 bombs he dropped last year were on Syria and Iraq. LISTEN>>>
3. SKASE A.K. - SYNESTHESIA
Because he's a white Aussie rapper who actually has something to say.
Marketers say that to sell an unfamiliar product, you have to make it familiar. It's why British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been forced out of his sandals and into suits. It's why Tesla's fossil-fuel disrupting electric supercars look like generic family sedans. And it's why lesbian rapper Young M.A. raps about "niggas", "hoes", "rich bitches", "getting money" and "getting head" - winning her multi-platinum sales. Like Corbyn and Tesla, she may not be perfect, but she's slowly changing the masses. However, no such compromise could be heard on June's well-produced sixth album from Sydney rap stalwart Skase A.K., who spat that he's "probably the only rapper who doesn't want to get famous". On the album's opener, he name-checked Tesla CEO Elon Musk, but that's about as mainstream as he got on "a 13 track explosion of colour and sound" about "climate change, foreign policy, banksters and the dumbing down of the music industry". Presciently, he also slammed Cardinal George Pell, who was charged with sex offences on June 29. LISTEN>>>
4. RANCID - TROUBLE MAKER
Because these US punk-ska veterans are as catchy and cool as ever.
On June 9, Rancid returned with a stonking new album and what must surely be the best beard in punk rock. On "Telegraph Avenue", they recalled the beginnings of today's global neoliberal monster in the arrest of Berkeley protester Mario Savio under then-California governor Ronald Reagan: "Mario Savio gave a speech. It was him against the machine. For that he spent three months in jail. But he said he would do it again. Governor Reagan had enough. So the National Guard, they pushed on through. Tear gas and riot police, on Telegraph Avenue." June also brought strong albums in Rancid's favoured genres of punk and reggae, all the way from US hardcore veterans Rise Against with Wolves to reggae champions Courtney John with Ecosystem and Isasha with Talk The Truth. Taking reggae a little further afield by mixing conscious lyrics with lilting jazz was Yolanda Brown with Love Politics War. LISTEN>>>
5. DJARMBI SUPREME - DEATH BY LO-FI
Because this Aboriginal rapper's making some of the most original music in Australia.
Aboriginal rock'n'soul singer Dan Sultan, also known as "The Black Elvis", put out an acclaimed new album in July, which opens with the protest song "Drover". But if you like things a little more leftfield, check out the same month's mixtape from visual artist and self-styled lo-fi rapper Djarmbi Supreme. "Everything I do is culture, everything I am is political," he spat on an album made entirely on his phone. The self-made beats were as original as his raps, which somehow managed to raise laughs as he continued to work through his issues with his dead dad, who passed away at the exact life expectancy of Aboriginal men - 11 years younger than non-Aboriginal men. Hammering that sad statistic home was the death of multi-platinum selling Indigenous superstar Dr G Yunupingu, who died at the age of just 47 in an Aboriginal homeless camp in Darwin on July 25. LISTEN>>>
6. NECK DEEP - THE PEACE AND THE PANIC
Because these Welsh pop punks summed up the nuclear fear gripping the world.
If politics is the entertainment division of the military industrial complex, then entertainer-in-chief Trump well and truly jumped the shark on August 8, by suggesting he was about to launch nuclear war against North Korea (while on his golfing holiday). On August 12, Koreans pleaded for peace by holding the DMZ Peace Concert on the border of North and South Korea. It was followed six days later by The Peace And The Panic, the apt new album from Welsh pop punks Neck Deep. On "Happy Judgement Day" they sang: "Is it just me or does anyone else feel like this could be farewell? We almost had it, then we pissed it all away. Building walls, dropping bombs, stop the world I'm getting off. We almost had it, thought I'd never see the day, when the world went up in flames." A week later, US country rockers decker also took a risk by speaking out against Trump ("Do we really want to potentially alienate half of our fans when we have so few to begin with?"), on their new album, Into The Red. LISTEN>>>
7. VARIOUS ARTISTS - WORLD WAR 2020, EPISODE 5 'FAKE NEWS' (CNN VS TRUMP)
Because this collective inject some much-needed humour into political music.
On August 12, hip-hop artist De'Andre Harris was badly beaten by racists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist killed anti-racist protester Heather Hayer by slamming his car into a rally, injuring 19 others. Days later, sensitive soul Trump retweeted an image of a "Trump train" mowing down a CNN reporter, sparking outrage. On August 22, satirical music collective Hard Vapour Resistance Front released their new compilation Fake News: CNN Vs Trump, which managed to be that month's most topical record by skipping the usual months of begging for publicity that artists go through before they release an album. By sticking it straight up on Bandcamp, they showcased samples of Trump blaming "both sides" for Charlottesville over pounding techno beats, just days after he said it, along with 35 other diverse tracks. Even quicker off the mark were experimental metal band Wolf Eyes, who released a fundraising record for Hayer just a day after her death. LISTEN>>>
8. PROPHETS OF RAGE - PROPHETS OF RAGE
Because this rock-rap supergroup reach such a huge audience.
As Trump-emboldened fascists protested in Australia and were elected in Germany in September, long-time antifascist punks Propagandhi released their new album, noting that "fascism is — among a certain crowd — suddenly trendy". On September 20, an antifascist headbutted former Australian PM Tony Abbott. Wrongly branding his headbutter a same-sex marriage campaigner, the homophobic Abbott then hit out at US rapper Macklemore, who was about to perform his same-sex anthem "Same Love" at the NRL grand final. PM Malcolm Turnbull then attempted to upstage long-time rival Abbott by trying to rap live on TV. We kid you not. The far better rap news was the release of the new album by hypergroup Prophets Of Rage, made up from members of Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Rage Against The Machine. If only one song sums up this year's politics, it's album highlight "Unfuck The World", which takes a slogan long emblazoned on activist T-shirts and turns it into a protest anthem for the masses. MORE>>>
9. MARGO PRICE - ALL AMERICAN MADE
Because it takes strength for women to speak up for progressive politics in country music.
At the start of October, a professional gambler opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring 546. One of the performers instantly renounced his support for guns. Johnny Cash's daughter, Rosanne Cash, called for others to follow suit. Shooting down that stereotype of country artists as right-wing gun nuts was Margo Price. On October 20, she released what Rolling Stone called the "most political country album in years" (though there was no shortage this year), hitting out at sexism and gun-loving Republicans. On "Pay Gap" she sings: "No matter your denomination, we are all the same in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of rich white men, no more than a maid to be owned like a dog." Facing criticism for politicising country music, she shot back: "If we wanna keep celebrities and politicians separate, then we shouldn't elect a reality TV star as the president." MORE>>>
10. PALOMA FAITH - THE ARCHITECT
Because it epitomised 2017's crossover of political music into the mainstream.
At the end of November, as police moved in on the protesting refugees at Australia's abandoned Manus Island detention centre, bestselling British pop star Paloma Faith released "Warrior", a refugee protest song penned for her by Australian hitmaker Sia. It's found on her new album, which is peppered with political samples from activists and even a speech by leftist journalist Owen Jones, who recently toured with her. Also epitomising the spread of political music way beyond the usual confines of punk and hip-hop was Tokio Myers. His X Factor TV performance of a protest song from his politically charged pop album elicited a standing ovation from hard-to-please judge Simon Cowell, whose industry peers used to shun political music. On November 20, pop star Beyonce - whose Black Lives Matter protest performance at the Super Bowl lifted her fame to a new level - was revealed to be the highest-paid woman in music. So what, exactly, was Cowell's motivation? You be the judge of that. MORE>>>
This column will return at the end of January. Until then, whether you celebrate Christmas or hate it, you might enjoy "the world's first Trump-themed Christmas song", below...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mat Ward makes political music and has been writing for Green Left Weekly since 2009. This year, he released a jungle album about financial markets and a chill trap album about Apple. Next year, he's releasing a future bass album about Elon Musk. Follow him on Spotify here.
Read about more political albums here.
Stream Green Left TV's political music playlist here.
3CR radio's Global Intifada show is a knowledgeable and diverse source of topical political music. Listen to it online here.
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