Wading through dozens of nominees for the top environmental songs in rock, rap, and beyond.
Grammy attorneys please note: This is the only time I'll use the "Green Grammys" title, so there's no need for the Cease and Desist letter. But I put out a call for suggestions for the best "green" songs and got buried in responses. So I've updated a piece I wrote in 2009, borrowed a couple more from writer Alyssa Kropp, and included multiple updates from Facebook friends who are far more woke than I in current music.
With a clear bias toward old music an old white boy would like, here's the countdown:
20. Traffic Jam: A catchy a capella riff from James Taylor about being stuck in traffic and pondering the impact of fossil fuels. "I used to think that I was cool/Runnin' 'round on fossil fuel/Then I found what I was doin/Was drivin' myself on the road to ruin." (1977)
19. Save Our Planet Earth: by Jimmy Cliff. (1990)
18. Don't Go Near the Water: After a decade of cheerful invites to have fun in the surf, the Beach Boys changed their minds. This was around the time that Brian Wilson went off the deep end. (1971)
17. No Cars Go: Arcade Fire imagines a world with no cars or airplanes. (2003)
16. To the Last Whale: David Crosby, Steven Stills & Graham Nash. Enough said. (1975)
15. Saltwater: Julian Lennon sings about the common bond between the vast oceans and his own teardrops. (1991)
14. Danger Zone: by Percy Mayfield. Sorry, no video link to this one, but listen to the lyrics. Old 1950s blues legends usually didn't spend this much time freaking out about nuclear war. (1961)
13. Paradise: by John Prine: "The coal company came with the world's largest shovel, and tortured the timber for thirty-odd years." (1971)
12. Gone: by Jack Johnson. "Gone be the birds when they don't want to sing/Gone people all awkward with their things, gone." (2003)
11. New World Water: by Mos Def. If we can have green head-banging, we can most definitely have green hip-hop (with blue language). "New World Water make the tide rise high/Come inland and make your house go bye." (1999)
10. Where Do the Children Play? by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. He stopped performing after his conversion to Islam, but the man later known as Yusuf Islam has begun to perform his old tunes again, mostly for charity. (1970)
9. Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me: Like Percy Mayfield, jazz legend Charles Mingus freaked out over the Cold War and originally recorded this in 1961.
8. Before the Deluge: Jackson Browne has worked long and hard for environmental causes; this is the best of many songs that touch on the topic. (1974)
7. Beds Are Burning: by Midnight Oil. Peter Garrett, the lead singer for the band, became Australia's Environment Minister. On an honorable mention note, John Hall, the lead singer of the 1970s band Orleans and a headliner in the No Nukes concert, became a Congressman from upstate New York. (1987)
6. My City Was Gone: by the Pretenders. A mournful tale about the destruction of a city (Akron, Ohio) and the creation of soulless suburbs. I'll never figure out how this became Rush Limbaugh's radio theme song. (1984)
5. Tapestry: by Don McLean. The guy who is often only remembered for "American Pie" also wrote this beautiful, foreboding message: "We're poisoned by venom with each breath we take/from the brown sulfur chimney and the black highway snake." (1970)
4. Big Yellow Taxi: Originally by Joni Mitchell and covered by many, including the Counting Crows. "You pave paradise and put up a parking lot." (1970)
3. Nothing but Flowers: by the Talking Heads is a wistful view of development in reverse. "There was a shopping mall, now it's all covered with flowers." (1988)
2. Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology): by Marvin Gaye. "Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our sea, fish full of mercury." (1970)
1. Dirty Water: by the Standells. More than 40 years ago, this band from Los Angeles sang a love/hate song for the water in a city 3,000 miles away. Boston's dirty water became an issue in the 1988 presidential race, and the song became a theme for the city's sports teams. The Standells are a lot older now. The water's a bit cleaner now. And the Red Sox rule. (1966)
And a few honorable mentions:
Save the Planet: by Edgar Winter's White Trash. A rousing gospel-tinged number that offers not a single example of environmental problems nor solutions. But you can dance to it. (1970)
What have they done to the rain? by Joan Baez. (1962)
Excuse Me, Mr.: by Ben Harper. "Excuse me, Mr. but isn't that your oil in the sea? And the pollution in the air, Mr., whose could that be?" (1995)
Calypso: One of the more tolerable songs from the late John Denver, it's actually a great tribute to a 20th Century hero, Jacques Cousteau. (1975)
Lochloosa: From JJ Grey and Mofro, about preserving a cherished fishing hole. (2004)
A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall: Bob Dylan's nod to the Cold War. (1963)
Like I said at the top, a lot of these songs are fifty years old. So don't blame musicians for not warning us. But in another decade, will we be singing "Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye" to the Arctic ice cap? The EPA? The vaquita porpoise? We shall see.
Have a song that you think belongs on this list? Send it to Weekend Reader editor Peter Dykstra at email@example.com, and we'll compile a "Reader's Choice" list.