Do you think there's no good protest music these days? So did I, until I started looking for it. The truth is, it's always been out there, but it's sometimes just a bit difficult to find. Every month, I search it out, listen to it all, then round up the best of it that relates to that month's political news. Here's the round-up for February 2023.
1. ORBITAL - OPTICAL DELUSION
On February 1, workers across Britain struck against pay cuts as the cost of living continued to rise. Hitting back at the capitalists' Tory pals in power is the exceptional new album from British dance music pioneers Orbital, released just days later. On its sublime lead single, "Dirty Rat", Sleaford Mods singer Jason Williamson rants: "People talk about the right way to live. Shut up, you don’t know what ya on about. You voted for em, look at ya! You dirty rat." The album further addresses division and discontent in songs such as "The New Abnormal" and "Requiem For The Pre Apocalypse". Such messages are rare in dance music, but Orbital's activism is nothing new. The duo made their 1990 debut on music show Top Of The Pops in anti-Poll Tax T-shirts and wrote 1992 eco-rave anthem "Impact (The Earth Is Burning)", reworked last year as "Impact (30 Years Later And The Earth Is Still Burning Mix)". LISTEN>>>
2. PARAMORE - THIS IS WHY
Also interrogating inequality is the startlingly innovative singer Hayley Williams on her dizzyingly dynamic new album with her revered band, Paramore, released on February 10. "War, a war, a war on the far side, on the other side of the planet," she hollers on "The News". "And I've got war, a war, a war right behind my eyes. Right behind them just like a headache... Far, I'm far, so far from the front line. Quite the opposite, I'm safe inside. But I worry and I give money and I feel useless behind this computer. And that's just barely scratched the surface of my mind." Explaining the song, Williams, who has often been attacked on social media for her leftist politics and provocative feminism, said: “The 24-hr news cycle is just impossible to comprehend. And I feel a pang of guilt when I unplug to protect my headspace. The common reaction, or non-reaction, seems to be dissociation.” LISTEN>>>
3. MHAOL - ATTACHMENT STYLES
Also flying the feminist flag is the new album from post-punk pioneer Gina Birch, which came out swinging on February 24 packed with seething songs such as "Pussy Riot", "Feminist Song", "I Will Never Wear Stilettos" and "I Am Rage". Days earlier, Irish post-punks Mhaol released their equally defiant new album, which opens with "Asking For It", released as a fundraising single for Women's Aid Ireland. On it, they fume: "I’ve heard what they say about girls like me. I’m just the dumb bitch that left the party with you. Was I asking for it? Did I ask for it? Was I asking for it? Did I ask for it? No." Four days after the album's release, Australian former federal Liberal political staffer Bruce Lehrmann filed defamation proceedings against media outlets for their coverage of allegations made by his former colleague, Brittany Higgins, who said he raped her following a night of drinking. LISTEN>>>
4. IRIS DEMENT - WORKIN' ON A WORLD
On February 24, Sydney rapper Urthboy released his new album, which posits that sexist humans are a "work in progress". "This toxic patriarchal system harms everyone, but we can help dismantle it even if we carry shame from our past behaviour," he said. "We can change." Similar sentiments about political progress are seen on Workin' On A World, the infectiously catchy new album from folk music icon Iris DeMent, which was released the same day. On its title track, she opines: “I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged to be workin’ on a world I may never see.” And on “How Long” she offers hope, "even if the arc of the moral universe is taking a long, long time to bend towards justice". The album covers many topics in diverse "marching songs" that aim “to fortify you in your fight against evil”, as she puts it. Musically and politically, it hits all the right notes. An instant classic. LISTEN>>>
5. KELELA - RAVEN
On February 25, LGBTIQ people and their supporters marched in Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, despite the increasing attempts to detach the annual event from its political roots. It came as participants voiced increasing anxiety about the pressure to fit body stereotypes in the parade, whose crowds were also being surveilled by new CCTV and monitoring software for the first time. On February 10, acclaimed R&B star Kelela released her new album, aimed squarely at "the people who have been supporting her all along: her queer Black community". “I started this process from the feeling of isolation and alienation I’ve always had as a Black femme in dance music, despite its Black origins," she said. "RAVEN is my first breath taken in the dark, an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power.” LISTEN>>>
6. MACY GRAY - THE RESET
On February 14, R&B star Macy Gray turned that vulnerability to power when she released her new album about the post-traumatic stress disorder she has suffered from police killing African Americans. The album came as Memphis police were indicted for murder following their "modern-day lynching" of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols. "My country gave me PTSD," said Gray, who has formed a charity to support the relatives of Black people killed by police. "I don't think people are aware that three people die via the police on average every day. So, the 99.9% of those you don't hear about, and most 99.9% of those don't get any kind of settlement. Don't see a penny." On February 24, political indie rockers Algiers released their acclaimed new album. On its track "Bite Back", guest rapper Backxwash slams racist killer cops with the words: “These fascists don’t mask they faces, they do just what they do.” LISTEN>>>
7. MAELSTROM & LOUISAHHH - SUSTAINED RESISTANCE
Also expressing trauma at the state of US politics is the new album from Louisahhh, released on February 10. The record, made with her long-time techno-punk collaborator Maelstrom, expresses her "political outrage at the loss of bodily autonomy and security" on the tracks "Vixen" and "America". "This body of work was carved from darkness, and not in a kind of goth trope, but more of a lived horror-show," they said. "Post-pandemic disillusionment and disenfranchised grief, rage at broken systems doing exactly what they were designed to do (serve the few at the expense of the many), the overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States; all of these external factors have demanded a new urgency and fearlessness in the kind of work that Maelstrom and Louisahhh are creating. This record travels in a gritty and fierce direction, directly engaging with present issues with timeless execution." LISTEN>>>
8. BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT - THE LAND, THE WATER, THE SKY
As Canadian cops decried the US police who killed Tyre Nichols, activists called out their hypocrisy, pointing to at least 117 police-involved deaths in Canada last year. Vancouver’s police chief condemned the Memphis killing but did not acknowledge that his force killed three people last year, two of whom were Indigenous. One record found 87 people were shot by police in Canada between January 1 and November 30 last year, and 46 of those were fatal. They identified race in only 23 cases, more than 40% of which involved Indigenous people. On February 10, Native American indie musician Katherine Paul released her cinematic new album as Black Belt Eagle Scout. Its opener, “My Blood Runs Through This Land”, pays homage to her ancestors by recording her feelings as she wanders through her homeland, "dipping her toes in the water at Snee Oosh Beach and paddling through Similk Bay", Washington. LISTEN>>>
9. THE FREEDOM COLLECTIVE - SONGS FOR FREEDOM
On February 5, as Australians called for a police crackdown on an "Aboriginal crime wave" in Alice Springs, a senior law lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney said such a move would merely continue the brutal colonisation of Indigenous people. “Segregation these days is not in camps, it is in prisons," said Thalia Anthony. Of the 40,000 people in Australian prisons, 31% are First Nations people, despite making up only 3% of the population. On February 13, it was reported that New South Wales police were far more likely to search children if they were Aboriginal, as nearly half of kids searched aged 10 to 11 were Indigenous. Four days later, songwriting workshop The Freedom Collective released their new album campaigning against the unfair jailing of Aboriginal children. It was recorded in Western Australia, the state with the nation's highest rate of Indigenous incarceration. LISTEN>>>
10. MARY OCHER - POWER AND EXCLUSION FROM POWER
On February 15, anti-war activists marked 20 years since what was then the biggest protest in world history. Tens of millions of people took to the streets in 2003 to stop the US and its allies illegally invading Iraq for its oil. The war went on to kill more than 1 million people. So the hypocrisy was stark on February 21, when current US president Joe Biden slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin's "craven lust for land and power" in invading Ukraine. Three days later, Russian-born experimental musician Mary Ocher marked the first anniversary of that war with a fundraising EP for Ukrainians. The record opens with “The Curtain”, a pseudo Eastern-European folk hymn on the nature of totalitarianism. The same day, Ukrainian composer Heinali marked the anniversary by releasing his new ambient album, which features haunting field recordings taken from around his besieged city of Kyiv. LISTEN>>>
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mat Ward has been writing for Green Left since 2009. He also wrote the book Real Talk: Aboriginal Rappers Talk About Their Music And Country and makes political music. You can stream or download Mat Ward's latest album based on protest chants, Why I Protest, free for a limited time.
Stream our new "Best protest songs of 2023" playlist on Spotify. This replaces the previous "Political albums" playlist, that was getting too big at more than 700 albums.
Read about more political albums.
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