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Top Ten Protest Albums Of 2017

*The following is a collection of some of the best albums of protest music in 2017.

Deerhoof – Mountain Moves

Album art for Deerhoof - Mountain MovesThe members of experimental rock group Deerhoof (bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, drummer/vocalist Greg Saunier, and guitarists Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich) released a lot of music this year. Much of it raised funds for groups like The Emergent Fund, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, and Brand New Congress.

Amidst a string of singles and side-projects, they also issued Deerhoof’s fourteenth record, Mountain Moves, with some of the band’s most straightforward lyrics and upfront melodies. The song “Come Down Here and Say That,” featuring vocals by Lætitia Sadier, was inspired by seeing communities organize locally, a call to politicians to meet everyday people and explain their corrupt policies in person. On “Palace of the Governors,” Matsuzaki loops on just one lyric, “You won’t live in this house forever.”

In a September performance and interview on Democracy Now!, the band explained the song “I Will Spite Survive” and its lyrics: “You could outlive your executioners / But you’re on TV, you’re expendable / Sleep at night, if you can stay alive / Stay alive, if you can sleep at night,” Matsuzaki sings. As drummer Greg Saunier explains, the talking heads and politicians who serve only the rich and powerful—they tend to be old: “I wanted to write a song directed at the millennials, saying if you can just stay alive… you can just do that, out of spite. You will actually outlive the people who seem to be hell-bent on killing you and possibly turn things around.”

(Liz Pelly)

Downtown Boys – Cost of Living

Album art for Downtown Boys - Cost Of LivingIn the tradition of the best political punk music, Downtown Boys combines catchy hooks with lyrics that speak to how marginalized people have agency and are capable of fighting back.

On “I’m Enough (I Want More),” lead singer Victoria Ruiz, who is Chicana, confronts issues of identity. Ruiz told Rolling Stone, “I know that a lot of the people that are close to me had to deal with never feeling enough: never feeling Latinx enough, never feeling American enough.”

“Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” further channels Ruiz’s roots. Pendeja means feeble-minded women, and in this song, Ruiz makes it clear that no one should feel inferior. They have every right to live as anyone else.

The most well-known track from the album is “A Wall.” It is the band’s way of declaring victory, even if President Donald Trump’s administration builds more wall or expands the wall or fence that is already there. Because, “A wall is a wall. A wall is just a wall. A wall is a wall, and nothing more at all.” It will never keep humanity down.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom HighwayRhiannon Giddens collects songs. Many of these songs are from as early as the 1800s, like work songs. They are rooted in African American history in the United States and weave together narratives of struggle.

“At the Purchaser’s Option” was inspired by a 19th century slave advertisement once printed in a newspaper. “For sale, a remarkable smart healthy Negro wench, about 22 years of age; used to both house work and farming.”

Giddens’ tongue-in-cheek, “Better Get It Right the First Time,” sings about young black men who must be better than perfect in American society to avoid being shot dead by police. And through covers of Joan Baez’ “Birmingham Sunday” and The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway,” she reintroduces songs of the civil rights movement era to a new generation of people engaged in fighting injustice.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Haram – بس ربحت, خسرت “When You Have Won You Have Lost”

HARAM - When You Have Won You Have Lost“Haram” is the Arabic word for “forbidden,” an idea the New York City hardcore punk band Haram has played with and reflected on over the past couple of years, across one demo, an EP, and most recently, its first proper full-length album: بس ربحت, خسرت “When You Have Won, You Have Lost”, released this fall by the labels Toxic State and La Vida es un Mus. (Earlier this year, we featured a song from the EP, “What Is This Hell?”, as a Protest Song of the Week.)

Haram stands apart from other current hardcore bands for its frenetic and dynamic sound, with at times bare-bones drumming and subtle melodies, and for its lyrics, which are sung entirely in Arabic. Singer Nader Haram said in interviews this is a way to reclaim his lived experiences. The new record features such potent songs as “American Police,” “Your President, Not A President,” and “Not A Terrorist.” It’s one of the most powerful punk records of 2017.

(Liz Pelly)

Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements

Album art for Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible EntanglementsIn August 2015, the five members of Irreversible Entanglements gathered in a Brooklyn studio for six hours to create what would become the group’s debut. This fall, it was co-released by two record labels: International Anthem, known for jazz and experimental releases and the punk label, Don Giovanni.

It’s an appropriate pairing for a record that combines improvised free jazz with Camae Ayewa’s searing radical poetry on Black trauma, survival, and power. It’s a record that stares you in the eye, throbbing with urgency and collective political energy. “It’s a protest both politically and musically,” bassist Luke Stewart told Shadowproof this fall. “It has to be revolutionary on all fronts.”

Irreversible Entanglements also includes alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpet player Aquiles Navarro, and drummer Tcheser Holmes. On “Fireworks,” their sounds punctuate Ayewa’s every word: “You see them fireworks last night? We was up on a hill, I found myself thinking about war and outta nowhere we was dead, like ten bullets traveling throughout the city killing nothing but black people. A whole bunch of us at the same time, different locations, sometimes through the heart, most times through the head… Last thing we saw was fireworks symbolizing something.”

It’s a harrowing and utterly necessary album about America today.

(Liz Pelly)

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

Album art for Priests - Nothing Feels NaturalIn the title of D.C. quartet Priests’ full-length album, “Nothing Feels Natural,” the second of the three words is key. Priests do not usually write topical protest songs, but rather songs that get at the emotional ramifications of political realities. As singer Katie Alice Greer recently explained to NPR Music, “There’s other bands who are trying to tackle, head-on, some specific issues. I think a lot of times, what we’re trying to do more is tie in a certain emotionality to the experiences that plenty of us have in our everyday lives.”

The album opens with “Appropriate,” a meditation on cultural appropriation: “You want some new brutalism / you want something you can write home about… a reason to colonize!” growls Greer over Daniel Daniele’s ominous drumming, before it erupts into chaos. Halfway through the song, the band is joined by saxophonist Luke Stewart, who is a part of Irreversible Entanglements, among other projects.

On “Pink White House,” Greer sings about the binaries and empty consumerism disguised as a form of political engagement that pervades American culture: “A puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate / Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2.” Elsewhere, Greer’s poetry and the rest of the band’s screeching, prismatic post-punk dissect internal dialogues of art-making (“Nothing Feels Natural”), the concepts of accelerationism (“Puff”) and progress (“No Big Bang”), and generally, the commodification of culture and community.

(Liz Pelly)

Rev. Sekou – In Times Like These

Album art for Rev Sekou - In Times Like These“Part of being black, poor, and rural” and “existing has everything to do with being an act of resistance,” says Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. This album, a follow-up to 2016’s “The Revolution Has Come,” celebrates the power of existing by honoring communities which engage in “high forms of dignity,” even in the face of daily injustices.

Sekou collaborated with Luther Dickinson and the North Mississsippi All-Stars. Organist Charles Hodges, who worked with such artists as Boz Scaggs and Albert Collins, helped Sekou imbue great spirit into the gospel, soul, rhythm, and blues tracks on the album.

On “Resist,” Sekou sings, “We want freedom, and we want it now.” “In Times Like These” contains a movement message about how people cannot wait for saviors. “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

There’s also a magnificently reworked cover of Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’” inspired by the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. As Sekou recalls, “I wanted to capture the rage that I saw in the streets, the righteous indignation that I saw in the streets of Ferguson,” and on the night of Wilson’s non-indictment, “I saw democracy burning.”

(Kevin Gosztola)

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

Album art for Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3Killer Mike and El-P, the duo that makes up Run the Jewels, address the masses setting the record straight on everything the political establishment may have said about them in the past year (e.g. Killer Mike’s outspokenness during the 2016 Election). The latter half of the album is packed with strong powerful statements for those simply trying to survive oppression.

“Fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy,” El-P raps on “Thieves (Screamed the Ghost).” Sampling an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” they tell the story of an eerie scene where oppressed people respond to the police murdering someone with full-scale rebellion.

In the introduction of “2100,” Killer Mike warns, “It’s too clear, nuclear’s too near/And the holders of the molotov/Say that, ‘Revolution’s right here, right now’/And they aren’t callin’ off.” They rap about gentrification and police harassment that makes forcing the lower classes out of neighborhoods easier on “Don’t Get Captured.”

Finally, “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters” exemplifies everything Run The Jewels stands for. They openly talk about what they are doing to in some small way make the communities around them a bit better and confront widespread bullshit. Then, they launch into a fiery call to action to throw off the chains imposed by the Masters of the world and liberate yourself.

(Kevin Gosztola)

Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love

Album art for Sheer Mag - Need to Feel Your LoveSheer Mag’s debut, released in July, is driven by love and rage, a record that deconstructs twangy classic rock by imbuing it with radical politics. There are songs of resistance throughout: “Suffer Me” is inspired by the Stonewall Riots. “(Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl” is inspired by the German student and anti-Nazi activist, who was executed in WWII Germany. “Expect the Bayonet” is about voter suppression and systemic racism throughout American history.

Its lead track, “Meet Me in The Street,” was written after this year’s Inauguration Day J20 protests, after the whole band went to D.C. together that day. It’s a fist-pumping head-bopping anthem about “throwing rocks at the boys in blue” with one of the year’s most memorable musical calls to action: “We get our kicks with bottles and bricks / When we walk together it feels alright / Meet me in the street!”

(Liz Pelly)

Songhoy Blues – Résistance

Album art for Songhoy Blues - ResistanceAs the desert blues band from Mali declares, their music has “always been about resistance.” They formed when the country was plunged into civil war. They committed to making music as a challenge to music ban imposed by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The album’s closing track, “One Color,” is an anthem against racism that features choir with children from several parts of the world. “We come together. Yes, we come together.”

On “Voter,” they rail against a broken system in Mali, declaring they will no’t vote as long as the system will not change. And through “Sahara,” they take a swing at stereotypes by mocking Western culture.

Not only does Mali continue to suffer turmoil, but they face an intensifying presence from Western military forces. In the face of all this, Songhoy Blues jubilantly makes music to fight back and keep hope for their country alive.

(Kevin Gosztola)

2016 Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein. Photo by Matt Johnson via Flickr.
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