In a contentious presidential election year, rock bands refused to sit on the sidelines while politicians had their say. Anger over the Iraq war, disillusionment with the Bush administration's handling of domestic and international troubles, and concerns about the direction of the country served as the creative spark for these 10 songs, 2008's best examples of artists speaking their mind to fans who no doubt shared their anxieties.
Disturbed frontman David Draiman called this song "an anthem for soldiers." Indeed, "Indestructible" starts off with the sounds of air-raid sirens and buzzing helicopters, capturing the aural environment of the battlefield. The lyrics never explicitly condone or condemn war, instead offering a rallying cry for those trapped in the crossfire.
In his guise as folk-singing protest singer the Nightwatchman, former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello speaks bluntly about the social ills around him. This song provides snapshots of a fictional narrator's life as he watches American jobs get shipped overseas, homeless living in the streets, and people struggling to survive on minimum wage. As a lyricist, Morello can sometimes be too strident, but here he deftly juxtaposes the idea of the American Dream with the reality of economic ruin.
This frenetic blast of industrial rock whizzes by so quickly that you may not even be able to catch Trent Reznor's clenched-teeth vocals. Nonetheless, on the most overtly political track from The Slip, Reznor lashes out at the unchecked power of the Bush administration, which he accuses of greed and warmongering. But perhaps the Nine Inch Nails frontman is even more furious with the rest of us for doing nothing about it.
As bleak as its title suggests, "All Hope Is Gone" hurtles along with desperate guitars and lead singer Corey Taylor's enraged vocals, painting a portrait of desolation and apocalypse. Taylor rarely sings in specifics, but his lyrics are disturbing snippets of a world gone mad: "We've seen the fall of the elite ... We have made the present obsolete ... The state of the nation/Violation." Slipknot aren't looking for solutions – they're just bathing in the wretchedness and asking their fans to join them in the moral abyss.
With "Kill the Emperor," the question isn't what's got rapper-rocker Everlast mad – it's whether he can fit all his complaints into one song. Oil dependency, The New York Times, Hurricane Katrina, an uneducated electorate, cure-all medication, war, crime, drugs, the erosion of civil rights – Everlast attacks each and every one of them in just over three minutes. But the song's main target is George W. Bush, the "emperor" of the title who Everlast clearly will be happy to see leave office.
One of mainstream rock's biggest hits in 2008 was also one of its most pointedly political. Shinedown frontman Brent Smith was inspired to write "Devour" after meeting U.S. troops in Iraq, and the resulting song is a seething diatribe against senseless war that's so bold because it's packaged in such an accessible, commercial sound. Subtly, Shinedown subvert the usual hard-rock bluster to make a defiantly pacifist anthem.
Any song off the One Day as a Lion EP could have qualified for this list, but the opening track fits the bill nicely, attacking the Iraq war while finding room for takedowns of corporate radio and the Bush administration's poor handling of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha lays down wisdom with his usual rapped cadences while drummer Jon Theodore adds funky rhythms underneath. "Wild International" proves that protest music can both rock and groove.
Black Stone Cherry sing about community throughout Folklore and Superstition, and this track gets to the heart of choosing hope over fear, a popular theme during this presidential election. "Peace Is Free" doesn't seem overtly political, but its sweeping sing-along message of peace and optimism has to be regarded as a rebuke to the pessimism that has dominated America (and much of the world) since the aftermath of 9/11. "You gotta lean on me, brother/You can't give up," frontman Chris Robertson sings, holding out hope that people will one day stop killing each other and learn to live together.
Scars on Broadway frontman Daron Malakian once claimed that he didn’t have anything profound to say in his songs, but "They Say" argues that isn't true. A poetic distillation of modern-day anxiety disguised as furious guitar rock, "They Say" frantically surveys a society undone by empty sensation and corrupt leaders. Malakian's repeated chant of "They say it's all about to end" could be seen as either a threat or a promise – are we heading to extinction or positive change? Regardless, Scars on Broadway's taut performance, peaking with a screeching solo that tears through the middle of the song, embodies the sound of civilization teetering on the edge of disaster.
The best political song of the year was a calm, melodic ballad that asked a simple question: What's going to happen to us? Over strummed guitar chords and a ghostly keyboard figure, Filter’s Richard Patrick ponders the end of the human race, wondering if doomsday can still be avoided. He offers nothing definitive as an answer, only suggesting that it's up to everyone to make sure that the world's reckless path to nonstop religious war and oil dependence is halted immediately. In its quiet way, "Only You" gets to the heart of society's most troubling questions and looks them dead in the eye, asking the listener to do the same.