This week, our long national nightmare ends. No art form captured or commented on the times with the immediacy of pop music. Here then are the liner notes for the ultimate Bush Years mix disc, guaranteed to fit neatly on a single 80-minute CD-R. Happy inauguration!
1. "Big Hat, No Cattle" — Randy Newman: Released a month after George Bush's June 1999 announcement of a presidential run and a full year before Dick Cheney put himself on Bush's ticket, Randy Newman's Bad Love — a brilliant album about terrible (old, white) men doing terrible things — all but predicted the Bush/Cheney administration. And no song was more prescient than this country and western black comedy, written in Bush and Cheney's own would-be cowboy language. "Oftimes I wondered what might I have become/Had I but buckled down and really tried," the song's narrator sings, channeling Bush. "But when it came down to the wire ... [I] stood up straight, threw my head back, and I lied, lied, lied."
2. "Our Time" — Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Six months into the new administration, New York art band Yeah Yeah Yeahs introduced an unintentional Bush Years national anthem. Karen O is warbling about her own band's imminent public backlash, but she might as well be predicting a global reaction to the Bush presidency: "It's our time/To be hated/All right/Well, it's the year to be hated."
3. "Far Away" — Sleater-Kinney: The moment everything changed, from the perspective most of America experienced it: Singer Corin Tucker watches the towers fall on television while nursing her newborn on the opposite end of the country. Guitarist Carrie Brownstein adds stately anguish to a play-by-play ("And the president hides/While working men rush in/To give their lives") that culminates in a prayer ("I look to the sky/And ask it not to rain/On my family tonight").
4. "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" — Toby Keith
5. "Hate Is the New Love" — Mekons: Two song-of-the-decade candidates embody very different reactions to 9/11 and its aftermath. Country star Toby Keith's rallying cry was widely mocked at the time, but it's held up better than most of its detractors would care to admit. Keith is a master craftsman, and here he captures a wounded patriotism and honest anger but also the careless belligerence that let vengeance spiral out of control. When Keith sings, triumphantly, "Man, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July," he doesn't seem too concerned about who exactly that "you" is.
Even more frightening is the seer-like long view presented by the permanently marginalized Mekons: "Underneath all this/The only thing that matters is/What and where you were born/And how well you use it/And conceal it/And there's no peace/On this terrible shore," Sally Timms sings, slowly, deliberately, hauntingly. Optimism only comes from an insistence on combating the abyss, on fighting the good fight: "Every day is a battle/How we still love the war."
6. "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" — Todd Snider: With division hardening just like Karl Rove planned it, folk singer Todd Snider turns the culture war into gentle comedy — a constantly revolving struggle where both sides are a little bit silly but "skin-color-blinded, conspiracy-minded protesters of corporate greed" like himself are programmed to lose.
7. "Memorial Day" — The Perceptionists: "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" Boston rappers the Perceptionists ask in the lead-up to the 2004 election. "We been lookin' for months and we ain't found nothin'." On his closing verse, MC Akrobatik imagines life for his brothers on the frontlines and names names: "Would Donald Rumsfeld back me up with the chrome?/Would Condoleezza Rice cover grenades in a foxhole?/I'm starting to believe what I was told was not so."
8. "Hard Times" — Jon Langford: A few months before presidential debates where a petulant commander in chief repeatedly talked about the "hard work" of managing post-invasion Iraq, Brit-turned-American Jon Langford issued a preemptive strike with this sarcastic tune off his politically merciless All the Fame of Lofty Deeds album, using the word "hard" 29 times in 113 seconds, including the black-comic cry "Hard work, get it while you can!"
9. "Counting Down the Hours" — Ted Leo & Pharmacists: Released in the run-up to Bush's reelection, Ted Leo's Shake the Sheets was an album full of great songs about what it felt like to be a dissenting citizen in the summer of 2004, including this song's all-too-familiar snapshot of helplessly passive despair: "Listening one morning as I drove down 95/To a story of detainees who were barely kept alive."
10. "Fire" — Kimya Dawson: Kimya Dawson's election-year call-to-arms is as felt and personal as all her best music: "He says he's protecting us/But he's a liar/And I know deep down that it's down to the wire/My heart will stop if I put out the fire." But it also includes a knowing, time-capsule-worthy glimpse of a specific moment in public discourse: "You believe what they're feeding/You're eating it up/While I'm reading books about how they're corrupt."
11. "We Can't Make It Here" — James McMurtry: No traditional "protest song" was as sweeping as this depressive, post-election, scorched-earth analysis from lit-minded folkie James McMurtry, who connects the dots on the decline of good working-class jobs, human fodder for endless war, and the big recession looming over the horizon.
12."George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" — The Legendary K.O.
13. "Georgia ... Bush — Lil Wayne & DJ Drama: Two scathing hip-hop responses to Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, neither officially released, both keyed to Ray Charles samples.
- Toby Keith
Houston rappers Legendary K.O. took Kanye West's Katrina telethon denunciation (and then ubiquitous "Gold Digger" beat) as starting point for their rush-released Internet sensation but pushed the complaint beyond race with a bit of disgusted truth-telling: "George Bush ain't a gold digger/But he ain't checkin' for no broke niggas."
Lil Wayne, lifelong resident of "the lost city of New Orleans," came a little later with his Katrina response but came even harder, mocking the president repeatedly using a loop from Charles' "Georgia on My Mind" while personalizing the tragedy: "They tellin' y'all lies on the news/The white people smilin' like everything cool/But I know people who died in that pool/I know people who died in them schools."
14. "Baby Let's Have a Baby Before Bush Do Something Crazy" — The Coup: With Iran seeming like the next stop in the neo-con parade, leftist rap rabble-rousers the Coup go all quiet storm with the title-says-it-all makeout jam of the decade. Inspirational come-on: "I don't really wanna fuss and fight/Baby, we might have numbered nights."
15."Let's Impeach the President" — Neil Young: Reagan-endorsing classic-rock dinosaur offers a simple idea the country didn't have the guts to take seriously: "Let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war."
16. "Windowsill" — Arcade Fire: Texas-bred expatriate Win Butler leads his stirring Montreal-based band through a maelstrom-like dirge that looks south to a rising tide and rejects what his home country has become: "I don't want to die in a holy war/I don't want a salesman knocking on my door/I don't want to live in America no more."
17. "A Hero in Harlan" — Tom T. Hall: Songwriter Tom T. Hall has been telling middle-American stories for something like 40 years, but he had been dormant as a record-maker for more than a decade before quietly releasing a new album in 2007. Very few heard it, despite containing the best song anyone's written about the Iraq war. Recounting the homecoming of a Kentucky soldier from flag-draped coffin rolling from an airplane to burial, Hall builds, with typical stoicism, to this: "The world is a big place and maybe needs saving/But what can a country boy do with a gun?/He used to win teddy bears down at the fairgrounds/When living was easy and shooting was fun/They fold up the stars and stripes for his mother/And gently they trade her the flag for her son/A harder exchange never took place in Harlan/But it's not the first time it's ever been done."
18. "Black President" — Nas: Signs of hope, circa summer 2008. "Black President" isn't a triumphant song but one of cautious optimism. A skeptical refrain — "And though it seems heaven-sent, we ain't ready to have a black president" — bumps up against a "Yes We Can" chorus, with rapper Nas coming in for a surprisingly grounded consideration of Obama: "But on the positive side, I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds/Of all races and colors to erase the hate/And try to love one another/So many political snakes/We in need of a break/I'm thinking I can trust this brother/But will he keep it way real?"
19. "Golden Age" — TV on the Radio: An alternate ending is Randy Newman's acerbic Bush Years bookend "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," which sees the American empire ending "like all the rest." But the audacity of hope seems more appropriate on the most unlikely of inauguration weeks. And so, instead, it's this sun-kissed fall of 2008 promise and plea from a band of multiracial Brooklynites: "And all this violence/All this goes away," they assert against all evidence. "Now we're all allowed to breathe ... feel it quake with the joy resounding."