The Year in Protest Music

“Is this the end of America?” Lana Del Rey asked this question over and over again on her fever-dreamy “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” her voice trembling and swooping as she pondered an existential query that spoke to my heart in 2017, too. The stream of headlines touting rollbacks and tax cuts for the super-rich, the heightened Tweetstorms, the Facebook comment wars, the sky looking just a little bit more tinged with gray every day—it was a rough year for everyone.

Music helped. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was a potent parable no matter how you arranged its tracklisting; most of it could probably make it onto this playlist, but I especially enjoyed “DNA.,” a rebuttal to stereotypes of black America that has the added bonus of making failed Al Capone excavator Geraldo Rivera look like a particular fool. MCs like Jeezy and Dreezy also addressed the current situation, and Rihanna spat acid-tinged fire on N.E.R.D.’s confrontational “Lemon.” Fox’s Star, which balanced the pulpy with the political in its two post-Trump-election seasons, called back to the civil rights era with the storming “America Dreaming.”

It’s worth noting that few of the explicitly political songs by even the biggest artists crossed over to radio, which attempted to remain neutral in the wake of the nation’s torment. While the bleaker global mood was certainly reflected in Logic’s anti-suicide dirge “1-800-273-8255,” Khalid’s doomed-generation anthem “Young Dumb & Broke,” and Post Malone’s hazy, irritating dive into self-loathing “rockstar,” the conditions that led to this malaise were taboo. Blame the precarious financial situation of pop radio’s corporate parents, or the nationally determined nature of the stations’ playlists, but the relative crappiness of songs like “rockstar” compared to charged-up hits of the past like Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s “Ohio” (or this year’s cover by Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, soul revivalist Leon Bridges, and guitar demigod Gary Clark Jr.) made plain just how shared problems being talked around robbed radio of a crucial spark. (If only streaming-music services included “Political” as a mood… although Spotify’s “I’m with the banned” project, which paired American musicians with artists from countries affected by this year’s attempts at a travel ban, is a good start.)

Either way, President Donald Trump is likely happy that he’s affected the mood of so many people, even if those who referenced him specifically didn’t have many nice things to say about him or his friends. Juliana Hatfield took on Trump’s administration on the ferocious Pussycat, which featured the gently grooving reckoning “Kellyanne”; Randy Newman used Russian president Vladimir Putin’s life as fodder for the rollicking “Putin”; Neil Young mused about “A gameshow host/ Who has to brag and has to boast” on the shuffling “Almost Always.” Propagandhi used some of the more vulgar snippets from the leaked tape of Trump’s gross 2005 chat with Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush to underscore the point of “Adventures in Zoochosis.”

Not all of this year’s political songs focused on Washington’s reality-TV circus. Austra’s mournful “43” was a deliberately downtempo stomp written in memory of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who were kidnapped in Iguala, Mexico in 2014; Belle & Sebastian’s brightly strident “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” gave a tongue-lashing to Brexit supporters; Pissed Jeans’ grinding “It’s Your Knees” took self-loathing masculinity to task, while Margo Price’s swaying “Pay Gap” was a working-woman’s anthem that aimed its lightly worn vitriol at “rich white men” who view women as housework-capable pets.

And then there was the year’s most unexpectedly gripping political statement, which wasn’t about the Trump administration specifically but which might as well have been. In June, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard released Murder of the Universe, their second album since February (of a promised five in 2017); it’s a sci-fi rock opera replete with chillingly ominous narration and flutes and frantic riffing. It tells the tale of a cyborg who builds a “Soy-Protein Munt Machine,” a self-loathing apparatus designed to cover the world in vomit. The apparatus eventually balks at its mission, so the cyborg takes over, finding unfathomable pleasure in utter destruction—”I turn lakes into porridge and buildings into bile/ I am a noxious soup filling valleys with vomit-torrents/ Castles crumble in landslides and I munch the rubble/ It tastes good,” he robotically growls over the finale and title track’s increasingly clamorous musical bed. (Sorry for giving away the ending.) The nihilistic pleasure that the protagonist takes in destroying absolutely everything had a particular resonance when it came out in June—sample the New York Times headline from that week: “Can Trump Destroy Obama’s Legacy?”—but the album’s combination of absurdity, grossness, and musical audacity added up to a stunning comment on 2017 that one can easily freak out alongside.

After the murder, however, comes the process of rebirth, and more than a few artists were expectantly looking toward the horizon in search of better days. Björk’s enveloping “Tabula Rasa” is a prayer for the next generation, hoping to envelop them in as much “grace and dignity” for as long as possible; Big K.R.I.T.’s gospel-jazz cacophony “The Light,” from his towering double album 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time, brings Robert Glasper and Bilal along for his trip to a more welcoming home; Vic Mensa and Ty Dolla $ign’s “We Could Be Free” and Miguel’s “Now” also offer messages of determination.

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale wound up being one of the most talked-about episodics of 2017, both because of the eerie parallels between Atwood’s dystopian visions and the greater (read: more traditionally patriarchal) America staked out by the Fox-evangelicalist likes of Mike Pence. The book and show’s Latin refrain—“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”—got loosely translated into English and turned into a rallying cry for Kesha on “Bastards,” the opening track to her triumphant comeback Rainbow. “Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no/ Don’t let the assholes wear you out,” she wails with increasing fervor, a choir eventually joining in. Taken with civil-rights veteran Mavis Staples’ powerful “No Time For Crying” (“No time for tears/ We’ve got work to do/ We’ve got work to do,” she belts over simmering country-soul), it’s a rejoinder to Lana Del Rey’s plaint, a firm “hell no” rooted in a desire to make the world better not just for the present, but for future generations.