7 Songs for the Anthropocene

#EcoList of Things We Love

A lot of environmental songs are bad — either awkward pleas delivered with an embarrassing amount of strain or dull dirges more likely to induce a depression nap than a burst of planet-saving energy. There are so many bad songs about the environment, in fact, that Rolling Stone put together this delightfully snarky list of The 15 Corniest Pro-environment Songs.

If you listen to a bunch of environmental songs in a concentrated fashion (as I’ve just done), you’ll identify two common pitfalls. First, some environmental songs lean too hard on logos and not enough on pathos. They tell why you should care about the Earth, but they don’t make you feel it. To a certain extent, these songs have forgotten that they’re songs, not op-eds.

And when environmental songs do succeed in eliciting strong feeling in the listener, it’s often the feeling of hopelessness. While this feeling is real and well known to all of us who care about the planet, a song that generates that already-too-familiar feeling may not be often revisited.

The best environmental songs avoid both these pitfalls. Their lyrics have much more in common with poems than with speeches, and the feelings they create in the listener are not small melancholies but emotions whose scale better fits the subject of Mother Earth and the harms we’re causing her — powerful, HUGE emotions like rage, joy, longing and grief.

The list below gathers seven awesome environmental songs into a short soundtrack for the Anthropocene era. I’ve intentionally left off classics that frequently make the lists of top environmental songs, like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Here, instead, are lesser-known tracks for you to discover and add to your playlists.

1. “Johnny Appleseed” by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros (2001)

Joe Strummer by goro_memo/Flickr.

If you’re after getting the honey,
Then you don’t go killing all the bees.

Sung by raspy-voiced Joe Strummer, formerly of The Clash, “Johnny Appleseed” is a folksy hosanna inspired by the sheer abundance of life: sun, fruit, freedom and soul. But the song also acknowledges that at times abundance is out of our reach — perhaps because of our own foolishness. Sonically and lyrically, the song encompasses both abundance and want, and becomes a meditation on this paradox of life.

Joe Strummer (1952–2002) was one of the first out-and-proud environmental activists of the music world. In 1997 he helped found Future Forests, now named the Carbon Neutral Company, which plants trees around the world to combat global warming. For his pioneering work in carbon offsets, scientists named a spiky-shelled seasnail after him. Although we no longer have the great Joe Strummer with us, we now share the planet with Alviniconcha strummeri.

2. “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” by X-Ray Spex (1978)

X-Ray Spex single, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by ACurrell/Flickr.

I clambered over mounds and mounds of polystyrene foam
Then fell into a swimming pool filled with fairy snow
I wrenched the nylon curtains back as far as they would go
Then peered through perspex window panes at the acrylic road.

Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the frontwoman of 1970s British punk rock band X-Ray Spex named herself Poly Styrene because, in her words, she was looking for a name of the time: “something plastic.” In “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo from Germfree Adolescents, which often appears on lists of top punk records of all time, Poly Styrene imagines a whole world turned into plastic by our urge to consume.

Four decades later her sci-fi vision has come true in sinister ways: Plastic debris harms human health, spoils groundwater, piles up in habitats, kills wildlife and costs billions to remove. The Great Garbage Patch, composed largely of plastic debris, will gyre slowly for millennia in the North Pacific Ocean. Even more than when the song was first recorded, Poly Styrene’s howl in “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” expresses the visceral protest we feel when we allow ourselves to face those facts.

3. “Anthrocene” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2016)

Nick Cave by nrk-p3/Flickr

All the fine winds gone
 And this sweet world is so much older
 Animals pull the night around their shoulders
 Flowers fall to their naked knees.

The Anthropocene is a term, now gaining currency, for the present geological epoch during which human activity has profoundly affected the environment in forms that include climate change, sea-level rise, deforestation, pollution and the ongoing mass extinction — an epoch of devastating human-caused loss.

Skeleton Tree, the 16th album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was completed after Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died of injuries sustained from falling off a cliff. The record brings together stripped-down songs that throb and pulse, sounding the way deep grief feels: an ache that sometimes ebbs but never fully leaves the body.

The song “Anthrocene” (a poetic variant on “Anthropocene”) creates an elemental world of sea, sky, tree, wind and a wild that’s changing, retracting, threatened. A human speaker addresses another human: “And I hear you been looking out for something to love … I hear you been out there looking for something to set on fire.” That seems a good description for human impact: What we love, we often destroy. The song ends with a warning: “Close your eyes, little world / And brace yourself.”

4. “Hymn of the Big Wheel” by Massive Attack with Horace Andy & Neneh Cherry (1991)

Horace Andy by Tobias Klenze/Wikimedia

An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
 It washed away my shadow, burnt a hole in me.

From Massive Attack’s debut studio album, Blue Lines, “Hymn of the Big Wheel” is a collaboration with Neneh Cherry and reggae artist Horace Andy. Opening with the sound of whale song and closing with an insect’s drone, the song juxtaposes images of the natural world — a “big wheel that keeps on turning” — with images of industrialization, pollution, and the injustice of a world where some have so much while others have nothing. Right below the surface of this beautiful, hymn-like song, a call for environmental justice sounds.

5. “New World Water” by Mos Def (1999)

Mos Def by prawnpie/Flickr

Used to have minerals and zinc in it
Now they say it got lead and stink in it
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Push the water table lopside
Used to be free, now it cost you a fee
Cause oil tankers spill they load as they roam cross the sea.

In this song natural water — water that has not been diverted, poisoned, colonized and commodified — is contrasted with “new world water,” which is no longer free, affordable or safe. When Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) says, “You be buying Evian just to take a fuckin bath,” he foretells current-day Flint, where taps cannot be safely used and residents must cook with bottled water.

As of the writing of this article, Flint has been without safe water for more than three years — and the return of safe water isn’t expected until 2020. This song takes a sharp look at the big picture and accurately measures the toll that unregulated capitalism takes on water, us and the Earth. It asks us to similarly keep our eyes open and understand what’s being done to our environment.

6. “Bear Up Bison” by Shonen Knife (1992)

Naoko Yamano of Shonen Knife by brettdavis/Flickr

He’s on his way to extinction,
We only want what’s best for him.
Bear up bison, never say die!

Shonen Knife is an all-woman band from Osaka, Japan, founded in 1981. Their influences are 1960s pop and early punk rock bands, especially the Ramones. Songwriter, guitarist and frontwoman Naoko Yamano has kept the band going for over three decades, and her equal commitments to rock traditions, female-made music, and her own ideas about what subjects are song-worthy have made Shonen Knife a one-of-a-kind band. It may be the only band in the world with more than a few songs about endangered species in their discography, starting with “Bear Up Bison” from their first studio album and going all the way to “Tasmanian Devil” from their latest (2016’s Adventure). Give them a listen.

7. “Breathe” by Ministry (1989)

Ministry by Andreas Lawen/Wikimedia

This is the world
It’s not working
This is this earth
Breathe, breathe, you fucker!

Breathe” by industrial metal band Ministry is a sustained scream of fury at what’s been done to the planet: pollution of air and water, raping of the land, disease and drug addiction. The song throws responsibility for this destruction where it belongs, in the face of corporations. The word “breathe,” chanted throughout, is an imperative to the listener to rise up and fight back.

This is the song to listen to if you ever feel discouraged about our efforts to save the planet. It’s a battle cry for eco-warriors and everyone else who wants to transform our global economy back into something sane, sustainable and essential.

Listen to all of these songs (except for “Bear Up Bison” by Shonen Knife) at this Spotify playlist.

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