Memorial Day is less than two weeks away, and while many of us are enthusiastically planning our three-day weekends, it’s worth remembering that the federal holiday is designated for remembering and honoring those who sacrificed their lives while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Given the current political climate, there are surely plenty of folks who won’t feel like celebrating the good ol’ US of A. And while they have every right not to observe, many of us who feel our country is worth praising, warts and all. That’s especially true for those of us with friends and family in the military.
So with all due respect to “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “The Stars And Stripes Forever,” we decided to compile a list of 10 of our favorite contemporary patriotic songs. Plenty of them are classics, but they’re all from the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Born in the USA” – Bruce Springsteen
Often misinterpreted as a boastful anthem, “Born in the USA” is actually Bruce Springsteen at his most critical. He sings of a soldier who has returned home, only to run into trouble finding work and encounter even less success getting any medical help, despite his status as a veteran. It’s a solemn reminder of how, historically, our country has failed many of those who have served.
“American Dreamin’” – Jay-Z
A self-made millionaire, Jay-Z is an embodiment of the American Dream. This track from the soundtrack to “American Gangster” displays an introspective yet proud Hova rapping about the American Dream from the point of view of an underprivileged youth, which doesn’t sound all that different from Sean Carter’s own humble beginnings.
“Only in America” – Brooks & Dunn
The second single from 2001’s Steers & Stripes saw the country music duo of Brooks & Dunn celebrating the American working class, from bus drivers and welders to bankers. Released in June 2001, barely three months before the September 11 attacks, “Only in America” remains one of the group’s most uplifting and iconic tracks.
“American” – Lana Del Rey
On the deluxe edition of her sophomore album, Lana Del Rey perfectly captured the typical experience of being an unburdened, uninterested American teenager. The lyrics speak of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley, of driving fast and aimlessly and of being hopelessly in love. It’s hardly a banger, but it’s a uniquely American song that still resonates seven years after its initial release.
“America the Beautiful” – Homeboy Sandman
Drawing a stark contrast to many of his peers, New York rapper Homeboy Sandman wrote “America the Beautiful” to bring attention to the many privileges available to (and taken for granted by) everyday Americans. With a reputation for speaking on a variety of social issues, Sandman took an opportunity with this track to reconsider what defines the haves and have-nots in the United States.
“America” – Simon & Garfunkel
What defines America? And what makes the American Dream so great, anyway? Both are great questions worth pondering on a road trip, which is exactly what Paul Simon did in 1968. More than 50 years later, it stands as one of the most iconic contemporary American tunes ever recorded.
“Chicken Fried” – Zac Brown Band
Fried chicken, sweet tea and pecan pie. It doesn’t get much more Georgian than that, does it? Well, actually, if you’ve got the time to listen to “Chicken Fried” in its entirety, you’ll be treated to one of the most cheerful southern country anthems in recent years. It even features a solemn third verse, dedicated to fallen soldiers.
“Made in America” – Jay-Z, Kanye West, Frank Ocean
A celebration of entrepreneurship and success despite feeling as though the chips are stacked against you, “Made in America” also praises its lyricists’ affluence and strong family ties while championing the idea of leaving this nation in better shape for their children.
“I Won’t Back Down” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Tom Petty is one of the most celebrated American musicians, and “I Won’t Back Down” is one of his most straightforward songs. Originally released in 1989, it experienced a resurgence in popularity following the September 11 attacks in 2001.
“Boys on the Docks” – Dropkick Murphys
The heroes in this song weren’t soldiers, at least not in any traditional sense. But they surely fought for every dollar they earned and worked their hardest on the docks in Boston, Massachusetts, to support their families through good times and bad. Which, to me at least, sounds about as American as you can get.