Most people like to affirm that music, like other types of art, has the ability to channel deep emotions which were completely hidden beforehand. Others tend to highlight different aspects of it, such as the capacity that a song may have to spark our creativity and help us arrive at new ideas. But what many tend to overlook is the fact that music can also completely change the course of history by addressing crucial social issues and have a huge impact on any society. These are some of the essential songs which changed everything. If you’re a hip hop fan, then don’t miss #11 and #2!
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#23. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, Bob Dylan
One year before the release of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, in 1964, Bob Dylan had already put out powerful, political songs like Masters of War and Blowin’ In The Wind. The young musician was taking the folk scene by storm, and his anthems would later earn him the honor of being called “the voice of a generation”.
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That’s why the release of this song wasn’t much of a surprise. In it, Dylan told the real story of the killing of Hattie Caroll, an African-American barmaid. The criminal, William Devereux Zantzinger, was a wealthy man with important family connections to the tobacco farming industry. He got away with a scarce 6-month sentence like many white, privileged men did, and a furious Dylan helped to shed light on the case.
#22. Happy Birthday, Stevie Wonder
We all know that there’s a national holiday commemorating the great Martin Luther King Jr. But do you actually know the sequence of events that led to Ronald Reagan signing the legislation in 1983? Well, believe it or not, there was opposition to the signing of that law at the time.
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So the active participation and lobby of influential figures was a key factor. One of those influential and cherished icons was Stevie Wonder, and his tool was the song named Happy Birthday. The single helped a lot in order to make the cause known, and he even assisted in the organization of a rally in Washington to increase support for turning MLK’s birthday into a national holiday.
#21. We Are The World, U.S.
Yes, Bob Dylan’s awkward performance during a rehearsal of We Are The World has become a hilarious meme-worthy moment, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this song was probably the biggest collaboration in music’s history. Indeed, chances are you won’t find another song with so many stars in it.
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Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, the guest appearances range from Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner to Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder. The goal was to raise funds for famine victims in Ethiopia, and the artists succeeded in gathering around 64 million dollars. Now that’s how you change the world!
#20. Hey Ya!, OutKast
With the huge success of Donald Glover’s series Atlanta, and the constant stars coming from the thriving rap scene of that city, young music fans may be led to think that the country’s South Coast was always a dominant force in the pop and hip hop fields.
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But that’s not true. The old days saw a strong confrontation between the West and East Coast, and that was the case until OutKast broke through. Coming from Atlanta, the charismatic duo helped to propel the South side’s rap scene into the mainstream, with acclaimed albums and worldwide hits that made you want to dance immediately, like Hey Ya!
#19. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
Can a mere amount of four chords change the world and represent an entire generation? That’s a tough question, but if there’s one song which can be the case, it’s definitely Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. This furiously amazing single became so popular that the whole world discovered what grunge music was, turning it into a gigantic counterculture movement.
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But it wasn’t only that; the song (and the rest of Nevermind, the album in which it appears), turned Kurt Cobain into a Generation X icon. Though he wasn’t comfortable with the “voice of a generation” tag, the band was crucial for thousands of teenagers, representing their frustration and fighting against chauvinism and homophobia in rock.
#18. Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2
Just look at the picture for a couple of seconds and the song’s power will be crystal-clear. If you still haven’t had the chance to attend a U2 concert, the fans’ frenzied expressions and raised fists while facing Bono in this photograph might let you imagine what a significant experience it is.
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Sunday Bloody Sunday is regarded as one of the band’s most political tunes. The lyrics refer to a famously tragic incident which happened in Northern Ireland in 1972 when 13 citizens were killed by British troops at a protest. The song went to represent a pledge for peace since Bono’s intention was to condemn the violent events that were taking place in Northern Ireland.
#17. Concrete Jungle, Bob Marley & The Wailers
If you think that this list isn’t right if Bob Marley doesn’t make an entry on it, then I definitely agree with you. This young Jamaican man went to become the most notorious icon of reggae, and he was known for cleverly combining strong messages against social and political injustices with sweet and catchy melodies.
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His album with The Wailers called Catch A Fire, released in 1973, was the one which attracted global attention to the genre, and Concrete Jungle is its opening song. In it, Bob reminisces over his childhood in Jamaica, also describing the tough reality of urban life. Check #12 for another Bob Marley track!
#16. Revolution, The Beatles
Revolution was released in August 1968, and believe me when I say that this was a tumultuous year. The heated protests against the Vietnam War were transforming into a massive movement in America, and students were occupying the streets in Paris, Prague, and Mexico City, expressing their dissatisfaction with the establishment and traditional values.
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Therefore, John Lennon thought it was about time that The Beatles took a public stance regarding the war with what became one of their first political songs. In the lyrics, he agrees with the urgent need for change while also manifesting his doubts with some of the tactics. The song vividly portrayed the revolutionary context, while also affirming the band’s pacifist ethos. If you liked this one, then wait till you get to #9!
#15. For What It’s Worth, Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield was a Canadian-American band which was only active for three years. Despite that, they were highly influential, and some of its members went on to have remarkable careers, including Stephen Stills and Neil Young. However, if there’s one song for which they’re known for, it’s definitely For What It’s Worth.
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It was 1966 when Stills was arriving at a show on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. But Stephen met with a situation which was far from happy: hundreds of kids were protesting against the closing of the club and a new curfew. Stills was left deeply impressed with the intimidating image of the policemen, and he depicted the situation in this legendary song.
#14. Free Nelson Mandela, The Specials
If you were looking for an example that shows how music can shed light on some of the most complex and deeply rooted injustices, then look no further, because Free Nelson Mandela is perhaps the most significant case. With their 1984 single, The Specials’ aim was exactly what the song title announces.
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The British band desperately wanted the whole world to be alerted of the atrocities of the Apartheid, and the song certainly cooperated in starting a powerful international movement against the racial injustices which were taking place in South Africa. Keep sliding to discover more songs that changed the world!
#13. Times They Are A-Changin, Bob Dylan
Releasing a song that later covered by legends of the size of Nina Simone, Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen is already an outstanding feat. But the main reason that makes Bob Dylan proud of having written this song is probably the fact that it has remained as an anthem for change for every generation.
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Sometimes called the archetypical protest song, it turned out to be a huge hit, reaching the British top ten and ranking as one of the greatest songs of all time, according to Rolling Stone.
“This was definitely a song with a purpose(…) I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way.” Bob Dylan told to Rolling Stone editor Cameron Crowe.
#12. Get Up Stand Up, Bob Marley.
Influencing rock and roll, hip hop, and numerous civil rights movements, Bob Marley proved on each of his albums that music could be a crucial world-changing motor. It’s no surprise that everyone loves reggae’s most famous legend, and this song is one of his most inspirational ones.
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Get Up Stand Up was written with Peter Tosh, and the main idea was to motivate listeners to actively avoid oppression. Marley and Tosh had to fight for respect for their Rastafarian religion, and their struggle obviously motivated the creation of this epic anthem.
#11. Same Love, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Ft. Mary Lambert
Most people know the Seattle rapper and beatmaker duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for their biggest hits, like Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us. There’s no denying that they were the most catchy tunes from their debut album, but there’s an admirable song which is sadly generally overlooked.
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This song is Same Love, which was written in order to support gay marriage. The chorus is sung by Mary Lambert, who was raised in a Christian home, sometimes feeling guilt because of her homosexuality. Same Love was luckily a huge success, and it never fails to give goosebumps!
#10. God Save The Queen, Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols may have released only one album, but that didn’t stop them from causing everlasting controversy and leaving a huge mark on punk music. God Save The Queen was probably their most iconic single. Written by John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), the title was the same as the national anthem of Great Britain.
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This was obviously intended to mock the royalty since the lyrics call for rebellion against the British Monarchy as a response to the youth’s alienated situation at the time.
“It was expressing my point of view on the Monarchy in general and on anybody that begs your obligation with no thought.” Lead Singer John Lydon told to Rolling Stone.
#9. Imagine, John Lennon
When you come to think about it, it’s pretty remarkable that John Lennon was able to write an anthem that would turn out to be even more popular than any Beatles’ hit. Indeed, after the cherished band split up, its members continued to show their impressive creative prowess on their solo careers, with more acclaimed albums.
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Imagine is probably John Lennon’s most recognized track, and it was released on his second album in 1971, only a year after he left his previous band. On the famous lyrics, Lennon attempts to encourage the world to imagine a peaceful world, where possessions aren’t as important as they are. Check #5 for another John Lennon related track!
#8. 9 To 5, Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton wrote 9 To 5 for the movie of the same name, which was Parton’s debut as an actress. The movie basically showed how life in an office was in America at the time, where the typical workday was from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, both the song and the movie had a significant message too…
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Indeed, both the song and the film were intended to express gender inequality in the labor market and various offices. Dolly had already gained a huge following in the male-dominated country audience, so the fact that she took advantage of her popularity to protest against the disrespect shown towards women and the unequal wages was even more relevant when considering the context.
#7. Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday
This song is one of the most touching manifestations against racism in the American south. After releasing it in 1939 with Commodore Records because Columbia Records (Holiday’s label) had refused to release, Billie Holiday generally closed her concerts with a powerful rendition of Strange Fruit.
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Still, Billie wasn’t the one who wrote the lyrics. The author was actually Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher and activist from New York. After seeing a horrible picture of a lynching in a civil rights magazine, he decided to express his outrage in a beautiful poem. He later transformed it into a song and played it for a club owner, who then gave the song to the jazz icon.
#6. War, Edwin Starr
Edwin Starr’s War was not only a huge success in the charts (3 weeks at #1 in America) but also one of the most straightforward and moving protest songs against the Vietnam War. With eloquently stark lyrics Starr heavily criticized the government’s foreign policy, adding another significant anti-war statement coming from musicians.
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However, the song was actually written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the crucial hitmakers of the legendary Motown label. Though Motown had a reputation for producing hit singles, some of its artists at the time like Marvin Gaye had already started putting out songs with social commentary on them, and these were usually written by Whitfield, as with War.
#5. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Beatles
Conquering the U.S. has always been a big deal for British bands, for it represents an impressive accomplishment that may catapult a band into international stardom and relevance. The song which finally got the job done for The Beatles was I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was their first American number one hit in 1964.
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Not only did the American audience finally catch up with the Beatlemania, but it also brought British rock and roll to the forefront of music, inaugurating a whole new era in the ’60s. The Beatles actually went to the U.S. for the first time a week after the single topped the charts, giving them an incredible boost. Slide on for more songs that made history and changed the world!
#4. A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke.
Though most of Sam Cooke’s repertoire consisted of emotive ballads and more uptempo tunes at the time, he was determined to create a stirring protest song to support the civil rights movement that fought against discrimination towards African-Americans, and the result was the brilliant A Change Is Gonna Come.
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He was actually inspired by Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind since he was bewildered by the fact that the song hadn’t been written by a black man. Some of the lyrics from Cooke’s song were inspired by an incident which occurred to him and some friends in a motel when they arrested for “disturbing the peace” after being denied rooms because they were black.
#3. Thunderstruck, AC/DC
When AC/DC’s Young brothers wrote Thunderstruck, they created a vigorous track that meant a return to form for the band which drove the fans crazy when played live. But this song doesn’t only have the capacity to alter its surroundings during a concert, but during cancer treatment as well!
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Indeed, scientists from the University of South Australia made a stunning discovery when they played Thunderstruck while preparing the drug which is used in chemotherapy. The particles coated in plasma which attack cancerous cells started to bounce around and secure a more even coating of plasma when AC/DC was coming out of the speakers at full volume. Impressive, right?
#2. Fight The Power, Public Enemy
Public Enemy was definitely one of hip hop’s most revolutionary groups, and Fight The Power is their most well-known song. This is an anthem that not only embodies black pride but also created controversy by taking shots at different white icons like Elvis and motivating people to fight authority.
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Moreover, the track first appeared in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing, which portrayed racial tensions in a big city.
“I wanted this song to be an anthem that could express what young black America was feeling at this time. Around this time, New York City under Mayor Ed Coch was racially polarized, and I wanted this song to be on the film” Director Spike Lee told on the book Public Enemy: Inside The Terrordome.
#1. Alright, Kendrick Lamar
The most recent song from the list, Alright had already gained notoriety when it was released on Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant album To Pimp A Butterfly. This LP, which mixes elements of hip hop, jazz, and funk, cleverly analyzes the complex racial conflicts in America, at a time where police violence against African-Americans was at the spotlight.
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Alright was one of the highlights from the memorable album, but it definitely became a song that made history when the crowds spontaneously started to chant the hopeful lines from the chorus at the Black Lives Matter marches. Lamar’s song was yet another example of how music can change the world because it not only became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement of this century, but it also resonated with many people because it encouraged everyone to fight against adversity when there’s little hope.