The Melting Pot’s Molly Pitcher on her top five political and protest albums of 2016
1. Mavis Staples: Livin’ on a High Note
Staples collaborated on this album with producer M. Ward and songwriters Nick Cave, Neko Case, Ben Harper, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc, and more. She’s indignant about the world’s inequities (“Haven’t we suffered, suffered enough” on “Love and Trust”) and she’s reflecting on past battles (“What do we do with this history now?” on “History, Now”), but mostly she’s trying to make sure you’re activated for the battles yet to come. My favorite tune on an entirely great album is “Action:” “Who’s gonna do it if I don’t? I gotta put it into action until I set myself free.”
2. Parker Millsap: The Very Last Day
Millsap is a singer-songwriter in the Americana genre. His third album includes story songs about a gay preacher’s son (“Heaven Sent”), a veteran forced into a life of crime (“Hands Up”), an outraged evangelical left behind from the Rapture (“Tribulation Hymn”) and a musing upon nuclear apocalypse (“The Very Last Day”). It sounds like woeful serious stuff, but it’s foot tapping banjo joy.
3. Anoushka Shankar: Land of Gold
How can an album of mostly instrumental sitar pieces make the top five political albums of the year? Easily, because Anoushka was inspired by the plight of refugees. She collaborated with M.I.A. in an eerie rap “Jump In: Cross the Line,” and with Vanessa Redgrave on the spoken word track describing a mother and child in an unstable boat (“Remain the Sea”). The same watery theme can be felt in the storm tossed instrumental “Boat to Nowhere.” My favorite track is the moving “Land of Gold” with German vocalist Alev Lenz.
4. Birth of a Nation soundtrack
The film Birth of a Nation tells the story of the Nat Turner rebellion, but controversy marred the film’s release when news reports revealed the film’s director and star Nate Parker had been accused of raping an unconscious college student. Many boycotted the film as a result. Skip the movie if you wish—but don’t miss the soundtrack. The music includes gospel (the stirring Wiley College Choir gospel piece “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”), pop (“Stand” by Trey Songz), stirring hip hop flavored rock (“Raise Hell” by Sir the Baptist) and straight forward hip hop. Who can stay still and not rise to your feet with lyrics like “I’d rather die a free man than live on Earth a slave/I’m fighting for people they put in chains/they stripped our heritage they took our names/Put our women to shame” (“On My Own” by Lecrae & Leon Bridges). While the film might be set in the early 1800’s, the music bridges to contemporary times by pointing out “But we still can’t cross the street without the police trying to Zimmerman us while the neighborhood watch.” (“Go Tell ‘Em”) by Vic Mensa)
5. Hamilton Mixtape
Surely you’ve enjoyed the “Hamilton” Broadway phenomenon from last year’s soundtrack release—but if you live in Nebraska, you may have to wait a while to see the play. Keep yourself occupied by listening to the Hamilton Mixtape a tribute album of sorts. Artists as diverse as Sia, Nas, Alicia Keys, John Legend and more recreate tracks from the original soundtrack—but there’s more than just covers here. The Roots added a completely different set of lyrics for the iconic “My Shot,” and Nas and Aloe Blacc created a new tune “Wrote My Way Out” to describe rap’s ability to remove a kid from the ghetto. The Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda joins some of the artists in their interpretation of his work. Miranda also offers a few tracks that didn’t make the final cut for the play—but after listening to the hair-raising “Valley Forge” demo, you’ll wish they were in the show.